Our image of Santa Claus surprisingly has its genesis in a Christian Bishop who lived 1600 years ago in what we now call Turkey (Myra). Having inherited a tremendous amount of money when he was orphaned as a child, he supposedly kept none of it. Tradition, legend or history passes down to us that he was so well know for his kindness reputation for helping the poor and giving secret gifts to people who needed it, that he was made the bishop – as a boy – by the people of Myra.
Soon there after he was imprisoned during the reigns of Roman Emperors Diocletian and Maximian who the persecuted Christians of the empire. and the new bishop was imprisoned. When Constantine became emperor, Nicholas was released with countless others. He returned to his ministry and preaching to discover a new threat dividing the Church: Arianism. This was an ancient (and still present today) heresy or belief that Jesus was only human, a good man, not in any way divine or the incarnation of God in the world. It was rooted in the ancient Greco-Roman metaphysical belief that everything that is spiritual is far superior to that which is physical, and thus would never come in contact with each other. Hence as God is the ultimate perfect spiritual presence, God would never stoop to such a disgustingly offensive level of taking on physical, or human flesh. Our lives then can only become worthy or worth-while when we achieve a divine state of being through illumination, enlightenment or karma-like transcendence.
There are several legends about St. Nicholas, which are impossible to verify in our scientifically-based notion of historical validity but undoubtedly contain some truth in them:
The most famous explains where the tradition of hanging stockings to receive gifts comes from: There was a poor man who had three daughters. He was so poor, he did not have enough money for a dowry, so his daughters couldn’t get married. One night, Nicholas secretly dropped a bag of gold down the chimney and into the house. Having received the gift of a dowry, the oldest daughter could now be married. The bag fell into a stocking that had been hung by the fire to dry! This was repeated later with the second daughter. Finally, determined to discover the person who had given him the money, the father secretly hid by the fire every evening until he caught Nicholas dropping in a bag of gold. Nicholas begged the man to not tell anyone what he had done, because he did not want to bring attention to himself. But soon the news got out and when anyone received a secret gift, it was thought that maybe it was from Nicholas.
Another story tells how during a terrible famine, a malicious butcher lured three little children into his house, where he 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 His kindness endeared him not only as a saint of children but also of sailors.
One legend tells of him helping sailors that were caught in a horrific storm off the coast of Turkey. The storm was raging around them and all the men were terrified that their ship would sink beneath the giant waves. They prayed to St. Nicholas to help them. Suddenly, he was standing on the deck before them. He ordered the sea to be calm, the storm died away, and they were able to sail their ship safely to port. (It sounds a bit like the story of Jesus in Mark 4).
According to another story, during a great famine that Myra experienced in 311–312, a ship was in the port at anchor, loaded with wheat for the Emperor in Constantinople. Nicholas invited the sailors to unload a part of the wheat to help in the time of need. The sailors at first disliked the request, because the wheat had to be weighed accurately and delivered to the Emperor. Only when Nicholas promised them that they would not suffer any loss for their consideration, the sailors agreed. When they arrived later in the capital, they made a surprising find: the weight of the load had not changed, although the wheat removed in Myra was enough for two full years and could even be used for sowing.
While yet a young man, Nicholas followed the example of his uncle, the abbot, by making a pilgrimage to the birthplace of Christianity—the Holy Land. Desiring a serene time of preparation, Nicholas set sail on an Egyptian ship where the other pilgrims did not know who he was. The first night he dreamed a storm would put them all at peril. When he awoke in the morning he warned the sailors that a severe storm was coming, but they need not fear, for “God will protect us.” Almost immediately the sky darkened and strong winds roared round the ship. The wind and waves made it impossible to keep the ship under control. Even with lowered sails, the sailors feared for their very lives and begged Nicholas to pray for safety. One sailor climbed the main mast, tightening the ropes so the mast would not crash onto the deck. As he was coming back down, the sailor slipped, fell to the deck, and was killed. While Nicholas prayed, the storm did quiet, relieving the sailors. Their comfort, however, was dampened by grief over their comrade’s death. As Nicholas prayed over the dead sailor, he was revived, “as if he had only been asleep.” The man awakened without pain and the ship finished the journey to the Holy Land. Nicholas then embarked on his pilgrimage to the holy places, walking where Jesus had walked.
His long life led him to live in and out of times of persecution. His last days were ones spent in prise during the persecution by the Emperor Diocletian. The precise dating of his death is unclear, but it is strongly believed to have been on 6th December in either 345 or 352 AD. Hence December 6th has become his Saint, or Feat Day in the Catholic Tradition.
History tells us that in 1087 his bones were stolen from Turkey by some Italian merchant sailors (maybe there were trying to appropriate a blessing of protection during this time of sea warfare between the Italian nations and the Muslim enclave in North Africa). His bones are now kept in the Church named after him in the Italian port of Bari. It’s one of the principal ports from which ferries depart for Greece. Annually on his feast day (6th December), the sailors of Bari still carry his statue from the Cathedral out to sea, so that he can bless the waters and so give them safe voyages throughout the year.
His story is quite different than we imagine. There is no snow, reindeer, or red outfits involved. The image of Saint Nicolas has been greatly transformed, subverted and manipulated over the centuries to suit particular cultural contexts, rulers and corporations. It’s not surprising that he was immensely popular, in England alone more than 400 churches were dedicated in his name during the Middle Ages. Somewhere along the line people began giving presents in his name on his feast day. Most likely this emerging tradition grew from the gold-giving-down-the-chimney story. In Germanic countries his story was intertwined with that of the Norse god Woden (or Odin). During the Protestant Reformation his following disappeared from Europe (except in Holland) due to the iconoclastic influences of that movement and its desire to reject everything associated with Catholicism. He was known in Holland as Sinterklass. Martin Luther didn’t seek to eliminate the gift giving tradition, but he did replace his persona with the Christ Child (called the Christkindl) who gave the gifts. That German word came to be re-pronounced as Kriss Kringle, which ironically today is considered another name for Santa Claus. This later was a mixing of the story of St Nicholas with Father Christmas from the Northern Latvian countries.
St. Nicholas became popular again in the Victorian era when writers, poets and artists rediscovered the old stories. It was then in 1823 that Dr Clement Clarke Moore (claimed to have) the famous poem ‘A Visit from St. Nicholas’ or ‘T’was the Night before Christmas.’ The poem describes eight reindeer and gives them their names. They became really well known in the song ‘Rudolph the Red nosed Reindeer’, written in 1949.
For centuries St Nicholas had been depicted wearing his Bishop’s red robes. During Victorian times, he wore a range of colors (red, green, blue and brown fur) but red seems to have always been his favorite! In January 1863, the magazine Harper’s Weekly published the first illustration of St Nicholas or “St Nick” by Thomas Nast. Originally he wore a ‘Stars and Stripes’ outfit (how’s that for cultural integration). For the next twenty years Thomas Nast continued with great popularity to draw Santa every Christmas . During this growing popularity the thin Asian saint began to to develop his big tummy, the style of red and white outfit he wears today and his skin was lightened and curiously he developed an ahistorical love of Coca-cola as his beverage of choice.
While much is lost, and maybe unknowable about the story of the Jesus-follower from whom our dominate corporate and cultural celebration of Christmas comes, there are Advent flashes of hope within the vortex of legends. Nicholas who had lost much, never focused or settled on the darkness of orphan-hood or imprisonment. He seems to have had an underlying belief, moral compass or life-force that pushed him to love other people generously and widely across their cultural and class diversity. He also must have had some inner conviction that the world was not yet how it would be, that God was at work in the world even despite appearances, that drove him to persevere, to act and to live. This vision of his surrendering his life to the Gospel of Jesus Christ, and being totally obedient to the God depicted in the Bible is strongly at odds with the god-like notion of a benevolent, yet somewhat indifferent to the ills of the world, Santa Claus who hides out in the North Pole, venturing into the dark division and confusion of the human world only once a year. In fact we might say that Santa Claus is much more Arian than Christian.
What has happened to our celebration of the story of a faithful disciple of Jesus who sought to live for a God who came into the world to know, experience, and ultimately redeem and transform our sufferings, poverty, loss and injustice? The season of Advent points us back to that real promise of the incarnation, the long-awaited hope of the Hebrew prophets for …
A shoot will come up from the stump of Jesse;
from his roots a Branch will bear fruit.
2 The Spirit of the Lord will rest on him—
the Spirit of wisdom and of understanding,
the Spirit of counsel and of might, the Spirit of the knowledge and fear of the Lord—
3 and he will delight in the fear of the Lord.
He will not judge by what he sees with his eyes,
or decide by what he hears with his ears;
4 but with righteousness he will judge the needy,
with justice he will give decisions for the poor of the earth.
He will strike the earth with the rod of his mouth;
with the breath of his lips he will slay the wicked.
5 Righteousness will be his belt and faithfulness the sash around his waist.
6 The wolf will live with the lamb,
the leopard will lie down with the goat,
the calf and the lion and the yearling together;
and a little child will lead them.
7 The cow will feed with the bear, their young will lie down together,
and the lion will eat straw like the ox.
8 The infant will play near the cobra’s den,
and the young child will put its hand into the viper’s nest.
9 They will neither harm nor destroy on all my holy mountain,
for the earth will be filled
with the knowledge of the Lord as the waters cover the sea.