How did a 4th century bishop become the jolly man who comes down the chimney with gifts for children on Christmas?
Nicholas, Bishop of Myra
Nicholas grew up among a wealthy Christian family in what is now southwest Turkey. His family connections and piety led him to becoming the Bishop of Myra, and he was even one of the religious officials who signed the Nicene Creed in 325. Nicholas died on December 6, 343.
Legends of St. Nicholas
After Nicholas’ death many miracles and legends were attributed to him – he was even nicknamed Nicholas the Wonderworker. In one story, Nicholas learns that a father is too poor to give dowries to his three daughters, and they would be forced to become prostitutes. Over three nights Nicholas secretly throws bags of gold into the father’s window, and the girls are saved! As Nicholas becomes a saint, he becomes the heavenly patron for a wide number of peoples and groups, including bakers, brides, captives, fisherman, florists, judges, merchants, orphans, pawnbrokers, pirates, poets, Russians, shipwrights, thieves, travellers and weavers.
Relics of St. Nicholas
As the cult of St. Nicholas grew throughout the Early Middle Ages, his tomb in Myra became a popular pilgrimage site. In 1087 Italians from the town of Bari raided the church where his relics were being kept and forced the Byzantine monks to hand over half of his bones. A few years later Venetian crusaders took the remaining relics. Meanwhile, the Byzantine monks would later say they gave the westerners fake relics, and that they still possess the real remains.
Popularity of St. Nicholas grows
Saint Nicholas continued to be one of the important saints in medieval Europe, and his feast day of December 6th becoming an important holiday. His fame even spread to Greenland, where in 1126 a cathedral was built in his name by the first bishop of Garðar.
Nicholas and Gift-giving in medieval Europe
By the 12th century French nuns were secretly leaving presents at the homes of poor children on the eve of Saint Nicholas – and soon the practice of gift-giving in his name spread throughout much of Europe. In towns Saint Nicholas markets would spring up where people could buy toys and treats for their children. This festival would mark the beginning of the Christmas season.
Protestant backlash against St Nicholas
The rise of the Protestant Reformation in the 16th century included condemnation of the veneration of saints, and St. Nicholas was one of them who was targeted. As one Protestant leader said, “it is a foolish and pointless custom to fill children’s shoes with all sorts of sweets and nonsense. What else is this but sacrifice to an idol? Those who do it do not understand what true religion is.” In lands ruled by Protestants, the traditions surrounding St. Nicholas were banned.
The Child Jesus as Gift Giver
The Protestants soon found a replacement for St. Nicholas – the baby Jesus, or Christkindl as he was known in German. The child would be the one who gave out gifts on the eve of his birthday, Christmas. However, many traditions soon developed that the young boy would need a helper to carry all these toys around on Christmas Eve, and this led to the return of St. Nicholas as the assistant.
The Strange Nicholas
However, when St. Nicholas returned it was not as a saintly bishop. Instead, he was often depicted as a kind of ogre or half-beast who would give presents to the good children, but would inflict punishment on bad kids! He would go by names such as Krampus or Belsnickel.
In the Netherlands, Protestant attempts to wipe out the traditions of St. Nicholas were not entirely successful. The painting, The Feast of Saint Nicholas, created by the Dutch artist Jan Steen in the 1660s, shows one of the children happy that she has been given a doll, while her older brother, apparently he was bad this year, coming up with an empty shoe. In Dutch speaking lands the figure of Sinterklaas continued to endure.
The legend even went across the Atlantic, into the Dutch colony of New Amsterdam. In 1809, the American writer Washington Irving wrote a satirical book called A History of New York, which included the tales of Saint Nicholas flying over the city in a wagon and delivering presents through the chimney. The book was a huge success and story of St. Nicholas became popular in America.
Twas the Night Before Christmas…
Over the next few years the legends of Santa Claus developed in the United States, with the 1823 poem A Visit from St. Nicholas, written (probably) by Clement Clarke Moore, instrumental in creating the story. Throughout the 19th century the quasi-religious elements of his character would be de-emphasized.
The modern image of Santa Claus
The actual appearance of Santa Claus was a matter of much debate in the 19th century, as he was depicted in many different ways, including a small elf-like character. It was the drawings made by Thomas Nast, an editorial cartoonist for Harper’s Weekly, in which he is a jolly, large man in a red suit, that soon became the standard of how Santa Claus looked.
You can read more about this story in Santa Claus: A Biography, by Gerry Bowler (McClelland and Stewart, 2005).
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