Santa Claus was a real person. He was Nicholas of Myra, born around the year 280 AD, he died 6 December 345 in the nearby coastal town of Patara.
The ancient city of Myra was just inland from the mouth of the Myros River where it empties into the Aegean Sea in the old Roman Province of Lycia. It was the most important metropolis of Lycia. Paul and Luke landed at nearby Patara, a prosperous producer of purple dye and a naval and grain shipping port. The church took early root there.
Nicholas was the son of Theophanes and Nonna, a family of substantial lineage and property. He was born late in their lives. The legends surrounding him describe a child of early piety, born into the last terrible years of Christian persecution in the Roman Empire. Young Nicholas was orphaned when a plague swept through Patara, leaving him with substantial personal wealth. He resolved to become a priest and set about a lifetime of service to God and giving away his wealth.
He quickly rose to become Bishop of Myra and there are many remarkable stories of his years of ministry. He attended the Council of Nicea and strongly opposed the Arian heresy.
There was a well-regarded family in Patara that had fallen on hard times. The father has 3 daughters for whom he was no longer able to provide dowries. In that world, the marriage prospects of dowerless girls was very poor. Indeed, it looked like they would have to be sold into slavery. They were a good, Christian family and Nicholas’ heart went out for them. In the dark of night he crept up to the open widow of their impoverished house and tossed in a bag of gold coins. In the morning the joyous family dropped to their knees to give thanks to God. The money provided a dowry for the oldest daughter and supported the family for some time. In turn, Nicholas similarly delivered little bags of gold as each daughter grew old enough to marry. Three little bags of gold is an iconographic symbol of St. Nicholas to this day.
It is hard to tease out truth from legend in the story of St. Nicholas. He has been one of the most popular saints throughout church history. He is a patron saint to marriageable girls, children, and because of other stories credited to him, also to apothecaries, seamen, travelers, poets, firefighters, on and on. A fragrant holy oil oozed from his sarcophagus in Myra, healing many. In the 11th century, the Venetians stole/rescued the relics of St. Mark from Alexandria, bringing pious prosperity to their city. Their rival city in southern Italy, Bari, began to look around for a similar opportunity for notoriety. With the Turks advancing on Myra, they decided that Nicholas’ relics needed to be rescued. Since then his relics have rested at Bari, and in the West, he is known as Nicholas of Bari. In the East, he is Nicholas the Wonderworker; in the West, he is the bringer of gifts.
After the Reformation, the cults of saints began to wane and St. Nicholas receded in the minds of European Protestants. But the happy custom of bringing gifts to children persisted with local customs of Sinterklaas, or Père Noël or Father Christmas or Weihnachtsmann or Christkindel or Befana. The renaissance of Christmas celebration in c. 19th New York City, one of the community leaders, John Pintard, stimulated Washington Irving to write about the old Dutch days. Sinterklaas – Saint Nicholas revived. Clement Moore wrote A Visit From St. Nicholas the same year that Dickens wrote A Christmas Carol and the metamorphosis was almost complete. It was in 1931 that Coca Cola commissioned Haddon Sundblom’s advertising series that painted the image of Santa Claus that most of us love the most. Santa was launched on his modern worldwide career in the far corners of the earth – even where the name of Christ is not known. Nicholas would be pleased. If anyone cares to investigate, he speaks of a life of love dedicated to the service of Christ and his church – even across the ages. His saint’s day is December 6.
Bennett, William J., The True Saint Nicholas: Why It Matters To Christmas, New York: Howard, 2009.
Metaphrastes, Symeon, The Life of St. Nicholas, selections, Mary Realnick, trans., EWTN, Irondale, AL. http://www.ewtn.com/library/MARY/REALNICK.htm.
Ott, Michael. “St. Nicholas of Myra.” The Catholic Encyclopedia. Vol. 11. New York: Robert Appleton Company, 1911. 6 Jan. 2010 <http://www.newadvent.org/cathen/11063b.htm>.
This Glimpse into the Past is brought to you by Board of Trustees Member Gale Kane.