In America, St. Nicholas (aka Santa Claus) is seen as a jolly, fat, bearded man, who drives a sleigh pulled by reindeer. But this is a caricature, coming from illustrations for Harper’s Illustrated Weekly in 1869, done by Thomas Nast. This art was a continuation of the chubby, plump “jolly old elf” image in the poem “The Night Before Christmas.” (This depiction is normally attributed to Clement C. Moore, professor of Biblical Languages at New York’s Episcopal General Theological Seminary. However, Don Foster’s book Author Unknown suggests that Henry Livingston, a patriot and author of humor and children’s verse, actually wrote “The Night Before Christmas.”) The image this poem portrays of a modern St. Nicholas has remained an icon of Americana.
How many Santas?
Yet St. Nick is viewed very differently in other cultures. In England, he arrives by train and throws presents through the windows. There his characteristics have merged with those of “Father Christmas,” who has been portrayed as the persona of Christmas (rather than a real person) ever since the 15th-century English carol, “Hail, Father Christmas, Hail to Thee.”
This British personification was closer to the Roman view of the god Saturn than to St. Nicholas as known elsewhere. The winter “Saturn festival” (aka Saturnalia) was a time of partying and revelry, similar to our New Year’s Day. The “Twelve Days of Christmas” were celebrated in like manner. (During the Industrial Revolution, the twelve days condensed into one.)
From Germany came the Christmas tree, the idea of leaving food for St. Nick, and the leaving of footwear in hopes of treats. Germans left shoes instead of stockings; Nicholas presumably “checked his list” and left either treats (such as oranges) or for the badly behaved, “useful items” (potatoes or coal).
Switzerland hosts several different traditions, some native, others adopted from Germany. French-speaking Swiss say that Nicholas rides on a donkey, visits children’s homes and listens to them read religious poetry and songs.
What is legend, and what is likely to be the truth about the man who was St. Nicholas?
St. Nicholas revealed
Historians generally agree that Nikolaos of Myra, the real St. Nicholas, lived and ministered in Asia in the third and fourth centuries. As a bishop, or what believers would call a pastor today, Nicholas was responsible for running a matrix of house churches. (Besides personal residences, no “church buildings” have been shown to exist before Constantine’s edict of 323.) Some house church leaders were designated as bishops (overseers) of local networks, seeing to the spiritual welfare of several house churches.
Nicholas gave away much of the fortune left him by his wealthy parents, who died in an epidemic. After visiting Egypt and Israel, he was chosen as bishop of Myra (modern Demre, Turkey). Diocletian, while Roman emperor, persecuted Christians, particularly the leaders, and Nicholas was imprisoned. He was likely released when Constantine became emperor.
Scholars continue to debate whether Nicholas attended the Council of Nicea. Some assert he defended Athanasius’s theology there (William Federer, There Really Is a Santa Claus, p. 26), while others note his absence from official rolls.
As bishop, Nicholas of Myra would have traveled to local homes much as St. Paul did. His role was more facilitator than director. Tertullian, a second-century church writer, explains house churches somewhat differently than Americans might expect: “In our Christian meetings we have plenty of songs, verses, sentences and proverbs. After hand-washing and bringing in the lights, each Christian is asked to stand forth and sing, as best he can, a hymn to God, either of his own composing or one from the Holy Scriptures” (emphasis added).
The early church respected and honored its leaders. Yet not one of the 25,000 early documents identified as definitely or probably Christian refers to a titular office. Leaders were recognized as and respected as elders but treated as members of the family, referred to not by title but by name. “Bishop” literally meant “overseer” (a function, not a title), meaning one who would write and give general counsel. If an issue were urgent, he would give specific instructions.
Known for generosity
Nicholas took these responsibilities seriously. Two stories told of Nicholas as a bishop are likely based in history: paying a dowry for three girls who were old enough to marry and aiding sailors in a moral dilemma.
Though details of the stories vary, it appears Nicholas gave three sisters enough for their dowries by providing a bag of gold coins for each. Without this gift, their poor father would have been strongly tempted to prostitute the maidens.
Sailors also remember Nicholas for his generosity. When a ship loaded with measured wheat was headed to Emperor Constantine, Nicholas requested that they donate some of the wheat to help the poor: his plea was urgent due to a famine in Myra. The sailors hesitated. Nicholas was led to promise that neither they nor the emperor would suffer loss. Heeding his plea, the crew donated the grain. When they arrived, they discovered that the remaining weight was not only enough for the emperor but also sufficient to sow new crops.
These stories reflect well the generous, responsive bishop who was canonized as “St. Nicholas”. Modest, humble, generous and hospitable, Nicholas exemplifies the gospel of life and leadership in the body of Christ that believers can live out today.
Penni Bulten is a homeschooling mom who is fascinated with the Founding Fathers and their faith. She can be reached at [email protected].