The transformation of St. Nicholas

How does an ordinary human being become a mythical figure loved by children around the world? Well, it helps if that person is alleged to have performed some extraordinary feats and acts of kindness during his lifetime. It would only take a few hundred years of shrewd advertising to turn that man into “jolly old St. Nick.”

Basically, the legend of Santa Claus is a tale of marketing through the ages. While today’s youth may believe Santa’s belly shakes like a bowlful of jelly, that is not a description known to the Ancient World. St. Nicholas started out as just a run-of-the-mill monk, born around AD 280 in Patara, near Myra, a seaport in Lycia in the Roman province of Asia, to wealthy parents. Future gifts people received from St. Nicholas were the result of an inheritance from his parents.

Little about the historical St. Nick can be accurately verified, but there are a number of basic aspects of the legend that are quite plausible, such as Nicholas’ devotion, which helps explain why he gained such a high standing in the Christian community. By the time the monk had risen to become the Bishop of Myra (in modern-day Turkey), Nicholas had earned a substantial reputation among Mediterranean sailors. In one tale, he is said to have suddenly appeared during a life-threatening gale and with a mighty command calmed the storm-tossed waters, saving the lives of a ship full of sailors who had prayed for his help. This and similar tales made Nicholas the patron saint of seafarers.

Nicholas also became the patron saint of merchants, archers, repentant thieves, brewers, pawnbrokers and students in various European countries.

One story, which helps explain his role as the patron saint for children, tells how during a terrible famine, a malicious butcher lured three little children into his house and killed them, placing their remains in a barrel to cure, planning to sell them off as ham. Nicholas, visiting the region to care for the hungry, not only saw through the butcher’s horrific crime, but also resurrected the three boys from the barrel by his prayers.

The historical Nicholas is known to have been caught up in the persecution of Christians during the reign of the Roman Emperor Diocletian (AD 284-305). Diocletian’s Edict Against the Christians was issued in 303. Under the edict, all Christian bishops and priests were to be arrested, including Nicholas, the bishop of Myra. Nicholas was at first exiled and then imprisoned. He was probably released when the Emperor Galerius, who initially was intolerant to Christians, had a change of heart on his death bed and revoked Diocletian’s edict in 311. Others suggest he was released by Emperor Constantine.

Historically, it is also known that Bishop Nicholas participated in the Council of Nicaea in 325 instigated by Constantine (called the first Christian emperor) to end schism in the Church and establish a universal creed (doctrine) to be followed by all Christians.

Many of the legends associated with St. Nicholas arose after his death on December 6 in either 345 or 352. However, it is his gift-giving that has survived as his most recognizable manifestation. He is said to have given away his entire inheritance to the poor.

The principle story associated with gift-giving was a tale centred upon a man and his three daughters. The man was too poor to provide dowries to his daughters to enable them to marry into good families. According to the story, the women were doomed to a life of prostitution. Nicholas heard of their plight and surreptitiously tossed three bags of gold — some say gold spheres or coins — into the bedrooms of the man’s daughters. An addition to the legend says that the gold fell into stockings, which is the reason children now hang up stockings on Christmas Eve.

The Western World’s first exposure to the gift-giving St. Nicholas came well after the western portion of the Roman Empire had collapsed. The Byzantine Princess Theophano was betrothed to the German-born Holy Roman Emperor Otto II; on her westward journey to Rome from Constantinople for the marriage ceremony, she carried an icon of St. Nicholas (now in a German museum). When Otto died in 983, she returned to Germany, bringing with her the legends of gift-giving associated with St. Nicholas.

Over the years, the Western World readily adopted St. Nicholas. In fact, sailors from Bari, on the southeast coast of Italy, were so enthralled with St. Nicholas that they stole most of the bones of St. Nicholas from his crypt in Myra in the spring of 1087. To this day, pilgrims and tourists visit the Basilica di San Nicola in Bari where the relics of St. Nicholas were reburied.

Recently, Turkish archeologists believe they may have discovered the remains of St. Nicholas beneath a church at his birthplace in southern Turkey.

The legend of St. Nicholas as Santa Claus slowly evolved in Northern Europe. The saint became Sinterklass, a shortened version of the Dutch name Sint Nikolaas. The Dutch brought the saint’s legend to New Amsterdam (New York City) in the New World. Newspapers in the late 1700s reported that Dutch settlers in New York gathered to celebrate the saint on December 6. John Pintard, a member of the New York Historical Society, in 1804 distributed woodcuts of St. Nicholas during the society’s annual meeting. The background in the woodcuts showed an image of Santa Claus and stockings over a fireplace filled with toys and fruit.

In the 1823 poem, An Account of a Visit from St. Nicholas, by Clement Clarke Moore, Santa is described as a jolly, heavyset man who comes down the chimney to deliver presents for deserving children and drives a sleigh pulled by flying reindeer. The now familiar image of Santa Claus was created by artist Thomas Nast for Harper’s Weekly in 1881 (he began drawing Santa each Christmas for Harper’s in 1863). His image was adopted by Coca-Cola for an advertising campaign. The “Coke Santa” ads were drawn by Haddon Sundblom and first appeared in 1931.

In Manitoba, newspapers of the 1870s were filled with ads featuring Santa Claus. Even then, the commercialization of Christmas was well on its way.

One Winnipeg optician offered gold-rimmed glasses that Santa would be proud to wear. A 1906 ad said that $10 Edison phonographs were “Santa Claus’ Favourite Gift.” The Morning Telegram on December 24, 1901, declared: “Santa Claus will have a heavy burden on his sleigh when he starts on his nocturnal drive if his hampers are to contain all the goods Winnipeg merchants have delivered into his hands.”

“It is Christmas Eve, and the young hearts are impatient and anxious to learn the bounty of Santa Claus,” reported the Winnipeg-based Daily Nor’Wester on December 24, 1894. What was true then is just as true today.

Santa Claus has undergone a remarkable transformation — whether for the good or the bad depends upon the individual — from his simple origin as the kind-hearted, gift-giving St. Nicholas.