Who is St. Nicholas and How Did He Become Santa Claus?

December 08, 2011

Saint Nicholas by Susan Seals
St. Nicholas
Artist: Susan Seals
All rights reserved

Have you ever wondered or maybe your kids or children in your church have asked you where Santa Claus comes from and why his is sometimes called St. Nicholas? In his Dec. 9 This Focused Center blog post, Bishop Lowry touched on the St. Nick part, which caused us to dig a little deeper into the St. Nicholas/Santa Claus connection. Here's what we turned up...
 
The true story of Santa Claus begins with Nicholas, who was born during the third century in the village of Patara. At the time the area was Greek and is now on the southern coast of Turkey. His wealthy parents, who raised him to be a devout Christian, died in an epidemic while Nicholas was still young. Obeying Jesus' words to "sell what you own and give the money to the poor," Nicholas used his whole inheritance to assist the needy, the sick, and the suffering. He dedicated his life to serving God and was made Bishop of Myra while still a young man. Bishop Nicholas became known throughout the land for his generosity to the those in need, his love for children, and his concern for sailors and ships.
 
Under Roman Emperor Diocletian, who ruthlessly persecuted Christians, Bishop Nicholas suffered for his faith, was exiled and imprisoned. The prisons were so full of bishops, priests and deacons, there was no room for the real criminals like murderers, thieves and robbers. After his release, Nicholas attended the Council of Nicaea in 325 a.d. He died Dec. 6, 343 a.d. in Myra and was buried in his cathedral church, where a unique relic, called manna, formed in his grave. This liquid substance, said to have healing powers, fostered the growth of devotion to Nicholas. The anniversary of his death became a day of celebration, St. Nicholas Day, Dec. 6 (Dec. 19 on the Julian Calendar).
 
Through the centuries many stories and legends have been told of St. Nicholas' life and deeds. These accounts help us understand his extraordinary character and why he is so beloved and revered as protector and helper of those in need.

To read more about St. Nicholas, visit stnicholascenter.org.

So how did the kindly Christian saint, good Bishop Nicholas, become a roly-poly red-suited American symbol for merry holiday festivity and commercial activity? History tells the tale.

The first Europeans to arrive in the New World brought St. Nicholas. Vikings dedicated their cathedral to him in Greenland. On his first voyage, Columbus named a Haitian port for St. Nicholas on December 6, 1492. In Florida, Spaniards named an early settlement St. Nicholas Ferry, now known as Jacksonville. However, St. Nicholas had a difficult time during the 16th century Protestant Reformation which took a dim view of saints. Even though both reformers and counter-reformers tried to stamp out St. Nicholas-related customs, they had very little long-term success except in England where the religious folk traditions were permanently altered. (It is ironic that fervent Puritan Christians began what turned into a trend to a more secular Christmas observance.) Because the common people so loved St. Nicholas, he survived on the European continent as people continued to place nuts, apples, and sweets in shoes left beside beds, on windowsills, or before the hearth.
 
Dutch family waiting for Sinterklaas
"New Year's Hymn to St. Nicholas," colonial Dutch life, Albany, NY. Harper's New Monthly Magazine, March 1881
St. Nicholas Center Collection
The first Colonists, primarily Puritans and other Protestant reformers, did not bring Nicholas traditions to the New World. What about the Dutch? Although it is almost universally believed that the Dutch brought St. Nicholas to New Amsterdam, scholars find scant evidence of such traditions in Dutch New Netherland. Colonial Germans in Pennsylvania kept the feast of St. Nicholas, and several later accounts have St. Nicholas visiting New York Dutch on New Years' Eve (New Year gift-giving had become the English custom in 1558, supplanting Nicholas, and this English custom was still found in New York until 1847).
 
In 1773 New York non-Dutch patriots formed the Sons of St. Nicholas, primarily as a non-British symbol to counter the English St. George societies, rather than to honor St. Nicholas. This society was similar to the Sons of St. Tammany in Philadelphia. Not exactly St. Nicholas, the children's gift-giver.
 
Eastern bishop with beehive and dog
Detail from broadside by Alexander Anderson, December 6, 1810
St Nicholas Center Collection
After the American Revolution, New Yorkers remembered with pride their colony's nearly-forgotten Dutch roots. John Pintard, the influential patriot and antiquarian who founded the New York Historical Society in 1804, promoted St. Nicholas as patron saint of both society and city. In January 1809, Washington Irving joined the society and on St. Nicholas Day that same year, he published the satirical fiction, Knickerbocker's History of New York, with numerous references to a jolly St. Nicholas character. This was not the saintly bishop, rather an elfin Dutch burgher with a clay pipe. These delightful flights of imagination are the source of the New Amsterdam St. Nicholas legends: that the first Dutch emigrant ship had a figurehead of St. Nicholas: that St. Nicholas Day was observed in the colony; that the first church was dedicated to him; and that St. Nicholas comes down chimneys to bring gifts. Irving's work was regarded as the "first notable work of imagination in the New World."
 
The New York Historical Society held its first St. Nicholas anniversary dinner on December 6, 1810. John Pintard commissioned artist Alexander Anderson to create the first American image of Nicholas for the occasion. Nicholas was shown in a gift-giving role with children's treats in stockings hanging at a fireplace. The accompanying poem ends, "Saint Nicholas, my dear good friend! To serve you ever was my end, If you will, now, me something give, I'll serve you ever while I live."
 
The 19th century was a time of cultural transition. New York writers, and others, wanted to domesticate the Christmas holiday. Christmas of old was not images of families gathered cozily around hearth and tree exchanging pretty gifts and singing carols while smiling benevolently at children. Rather, it was characterized by raucous, drunken mobs roaming streets, damaging property, threatening and frightening the upper classes. The holiday season, coming after harvest when work was eased and more leisure possible, was a time when workers and servants took the upper hand, demanding largess and more. At the same time a new understanding of family life and the place of children was also emerging. Childhood was coming to be seen as a stage of life in which greater protection, sheltering, training and education were needed. And so the season came to be tamed, turning toward shops and home. St. Nicholas, too, took on new attributes to fit the changing times.
 
Sante Claus in sleigh
Sante Claus
The Children's Friend, 1821
1821 brought some new elements with publication of the first lithographed book in America, the Children's Friend. This "Sante Claus" arrived from the North in a sleigh with a flying reindeer. The annonymous poem and illustrations proved pivital in shifting imagery away from a saintly bishop. Sante Claus fit a didactic mode, rewarding good cbehavior and punishing bad, leaving a "long, black birchen rod . . . directs a Parent's hand to use when virtue's path his sons refuse." Gifts were safe toys, "pretty doll . . . peg-top, or a ball; no crackers, cannons, squibs, or rockets to blow their eyes up, or their pockets. No drums to stun their Mother's ear, nor swords to make their sisters fear; but pretty books to store their mind with knowledge of each various kind." The sleigh itself even sported a bookshelf for the "pretty books." The book also notably marked S. Claus' first apperance on Christmas Eve, rather than December 6th.
 
The jolly elf image received another big boost in 1823, from a poem destined to become immensely popular, "A Visit from St. Nicholas," now better known as "The Night Before Christmas."