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Updated: Nov 18, 2020
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Saint Nicholas of Old and Santa Claus of Today
Written by Dr. Craig von Buseck
He is so much a part of our lives that many people forget that Santa Claus has not always been the jolly, red-cheeked icon that we know today. In fact, that image of “Father Christmas” is actually a relatively recent invention.
So where did Santa Claus come from? You may be surprised to know that the original St. Nicholas – or St. Nick as he is sometime called – was a Christian bishop in ancient Greece, now a part of Turkey. The story of Nicholas emerged from his acts of Christlike love and compassion.
Gifts of Love
An ancient merchant had three lovely daughters. But due to a tragic turn of events, he had lost all hope that his daughters would be able to marry and live a happy life. It was the third century, and this businessman had lost his fortune when pirates pillaged his ship. His beautiful daughters were of marrying age, and without money he could give them no dowry.
In those days, young women without a dowry had few options for survival. Many were forced into slavery or prostitution.
The father prayed around the clock that somehow God would grant a miracle for his family. A young Christian bishop — the historic Nicholas — discovered the plight of this man and his daughters. Nicholas was a wealthy man, having received a large inheritance at the death of his parents. One evening, in the middle of the night, Nicholas secretly slipped a sack of gold through a window into the merchant’s house. This timely gift saved the virtue of the man’s oldest daughter.
Later, another sack saved the second daughter. Anticipating a third gift of gold, the father determined to discover who was helping his family. He stayed up all night and when the sack was dropped through the window, the father ran down the road and apprehended the mysterious benefactor. The merchant immediately recognized the young bishop and tried to give thanks to him.
The humble minister deflected the praise. “No, all thanks go to God, not to me.” The father answered, “I need to let everybody know you did this.” Nicholas responded, “No, you must promise me that not until I’m dead will you let anyone know how you received the gold.” This compassionate bishop believed literally Christ’s injunction that when we give, we should do so in secret, sacrificially in Christ’s name and not our own.
The merchant promised he would tell no one of the way this minister helped save his family. And it wasn’t until after his death that the world learned the numerous stories of the generosity of this bishop of the early Church. Through his timely gifts, Saint Nicholas helped to restore the hope of this family, and hundreds more in his community. Throughout his ministry, Bishop Nicholas selflessly poured out his life and his fortune as he served the people in and around his home.
The Faithful Bishop
The story of our modern Santa Claus begins with this same Nicholas, who was born during the third century in Patara, a village in what is now Demre, Turkey. His wealthy parents raised him as a Christian. But they died in an epidemic while Nicholas was still young, and he was left with their fortune. Obeying Jesus’ words to “sell what you own and give the money to the poor,” Nicholas used his inheritance to assist the suffering, the sick, and the poor.
During the persecution of Christians by Roman Emperor Diocletian, Bishop Nicholas was exiled and imprisoned along with thousands of other Christians. Though he suffered for his faith in Christ, mercifully Nicholas survived this persecution and was eventually released.
After returning to his post as bishop, Nicholas was called upon to defend Christianity against the heresy of Arianism. A contemporary of Nicholas and an early church theologian, Arius taught that God the Father and God the Son did not exist together eternally. Arius also taught that the pre-incarnate Jesus was a divine being created by (and possibly inferior to) the Father at some point, before which the Son did not exist.
Tradition tells us that Nicholas vigorously fought Arianism. He was listed as a participant in the First Council of Nicaea. This important gathering, held in Nicaea in Bithynia (present-day Iznik in Turkey), was convened by the Roman Emperor Constantine I in 325 A.D. This was the first ecumenical council of the early Christian Church, and it produced the first uniform Christian doctrine — the Nicene Creed.
It is also believed that Nicholas participated in the destruction of several pagan temples, among them the temple of Artemis. Because the celebration of the goddess Diana’s birth is on December 6th, some have speculated that this date was deliberately chosen for Nicholas’s feast day to overshadow or replace the pagan celebrations. But December 6th is also listed as the date of Nicholas’s death, which is more likely the reason the feast is celebrated on this day.
The Impact of St. Nicholas
Widely celebrated, St. Nicholas’ feast day on December 6th kept alive the stories of his generosity and kindness. In Germany and Poland, boys dressed as bishops begged alms for the poor. In the Netherlands and Belgium, St. Nicholas arrived on a steamship from Spain to ride a white horse on his gift-giving rounds.
December 6th is still the main day for gift giving in much of Europe. In the Netherlands, candies are thrown in the door, along with chocolates, small gifts, and riddles. Dutch children leave carrots and hay in their shoes for St. Nick’s horse, hoping it will be exchanged for gifts. Simple gift-giving on St. Nicholas Day helps to preserve a Christmas Day focus on the Christ Child.
The story of St. Nicholas was almost forgotten during the 16th century as Protestants downplayed the veneration of the Catholic saints. Both reformers and counter-reformers tried to eliminate the customs of St. Nicholas’ Day, but they had little long-term success.
Because the common people 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.
The first Europeans to arrive in the New World brought the story of St. Nicholas with them. The 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.
St. Nicholas Becomes Santa Claus
According to the Saint Nicholas Center, after the American Revolution, New Yorkers were looking to break with British tradition, and they remembered with pride the colony’s Dutch roots. John Pintard, an influential patriot who founded the New York Historical Society in 1804, promoted St. Nicholas as the patron saint of both the society and the city. In January 1809, Washington Irving published the satirical Knickerbocker’s History of New York, which made numerous references to a jolly St. Nicholas character. This was not a saintly European bishop, but rather a Dutch burgher with a clay pipe. The jolly elf image received a 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.”
Washington Irving’s St. Nicholas strongly influenced the poem’s portrayal of a round, pipe-smoking, elf-like character. The poem generally has been attributed to Clement Clark Moore, a professor of biblical languages at New York’s Episcopal General Theological Seminary.
In North America, the popular name Santa Claus was taken from the Dutch Sinterklaas, which originated with a contracted form of Sint Nicolaas (Saint Nicholas). The “mall Santa” that we are all familiar with — sporting a red suit with white cuffs and collar, and black leather belt, became the popular image in the United States in the late 19th century and early 20th century because of the “Merry Old Santa Claus” images created by political cartoonist Thomas Nast.
Beginning in 1863, Nast began a series of annual drawings in Harper’s Weekly that were inspired by the descriptions found in Washington Irving’s work. These drawings established a rotund Santa with flowing beard, fur garments, and a clay pipe. Nast drew his Santa until 1886, and his work had a major influence in creating the modern American Santa Claus.
Santa and Commercialism
In the mid-20th Century a series of Coca-Cola advertisements featuring a rotund and jovial Santa Claus were drawn by artist Haddon Sundblom and further popularized Nast’s depiction.
There are, of course, controversial aspects of the American Santa Claus fiction. Some Christians believe he takes the focus of Christmas away from the birth of Jesus, placing it on a fictional character with little redemptive value. Others insist that it is unhealthy for parents to lie to their children to enforce their belief in Santa Claus. And others say that Santa Claus is a symbol of the consumerism that has seized the Christmas holiday in the West. Still for others, Santa Claus and the modern celebration of Christmas is seen as an intrusion upon their own national traditions.
But beneath all the symbolism and tradition that has been attached to the modern Santa Claus, he, like so many other “Father Christmas” characters before him can hearken back to a simple Christian bishop who loved God and loved people. Bishop Nicholas displayed his love through the giving of gifts, just as our Heavenly Father gave the gift of His Son to us that first Christmas morning 2000 years ago.
A historical view on Saint Nicholas - Santa Claus
The Greek Orthodox Church and Her Saints from https://greekerthanthegreeks.com
Since Anne is closely connected to Greece, here's an interesting story about Saint Nicholas ...
How did the good and generous, Christian Saint, the good Bishop Nicholas, become the Christmas Santa Claus, all dressed up in a Father Christmas outfit? Read on and I shall tell you the tale.
Saint Nicholas, was born a Greek, on the fifteenth of March 270, in Patara in Lycia, and died, on the sixth of December 343, which is now celebrated as the feast day of Saint Nicholas. He was born to wealthy Christian parents and was deeply religious from an early age.
How Saint Nicholas became Bishop of Myra
(In modern day Demre, Turkey)
After the death of the former bishop, during the conclave to choose the new bishop, one of the group heard a voice, telling him to watch the doors of the church the next morning.
The first person to enter the church, named Nicholas, was to be the next bishop. What do you know? The first person through the church doors the next morning was today’s Saint Nicholas and was consequently ordained Bishop of Myra.
The relics of Saint Nicholas
After his death, Saint Nicholas was buried at Myra, owing to his reputation as a kind and generous man, and remembering the miracles he had performed, pilgrims from all over the world flocked to his tomb.
When Myra was defeated by the Turks, his relics were removed, for fear of them being destroyed; half of them went to Bari, Italy, in 1087, the other half Saint Nicholas’ relics were taken to Venice in 1100.
It’s said, in Myra, the relics of Saint Nicholas, gave off a clear, watery liquid, smelling of rose water which the faithful believed to possess miraculous powers. After the relics were moved to Bari, they continued to exude this myrrh, and vials of this have been taken all over the world and can still be obtained at the Church Of Saint Nicholas, Bari.
An Irish tradition states that the relics of Saint Nicholas were stolen from Myra by Norman crusader knights and are buried near Thomas Town, Kilkenny, where a stone slab marks the spot believed to be his grave.
In 1993 a grave was discovered on the small Turkish Island of Gemile, which, historians believe to be, the original tomb of Saint Nicholas, it seems it’s not only a case of who is the real Father Christmas, but also, which is his real grave!
Saint Nicholas Patron Saint of Sailor and Children
The image of Saint Nicholas is found more often on Byzantine seals than of any other Saint, and, in the Middle Ages, over two thirds of churches were dedicated to Saint Nicholas in England alone. Saint Nicholas has been represented by Christian artists, more than any other Saint.
In the East Saint Nicholas is known as the Patron Saint of Sailors due to the legend, that, in his lifetime, he appeared to sailors on the stormy seas of Lycia and the Aegean and brought them safely to port. Sailors in the Aegean and Ionian seas had their “Star of Nicholas” and wished each other a good journey by saying: “May Saint Nicholas hold the tiller”
In the West he is known as the Patron Saint of Children, due to the rather macabre story of Saint Nicholas visiting an inn, where he discovered that the proprietor had killed three children, and boiled them, to be eaten as meat, by his customers. The boiled children, the poor little darlings, were kept in a barrel in the cellar, where upon being discovered by Saint Nicholas, were brought back to life by his prayers for them.
Another well-known story is how, on hearing, about a poor man with three daughters, who didn’t have the means to provide a dowry for them, Saint Nicholas, secretly threw three bags of gold coins through their window, to cover their dowries. This story explains the tradition of popping chocolate “Gold coins” into children’s Christmas stockings.
Saint Nicholas’ reputation for generosity was boundless; his giving of gifts was usually done secretly, such as putting coins in the shoes of those who left them out for him. Here’s where the tradition of hanging up a stocking on Christmas Eve came from; shoes or socks, we’re on the right body part anyway!
Through his generosity Saint Nicholas became a model for today’s Santa Claus (A corruption of the name Saint Nicholas). For his generosity and performing of miracles he is known as: “The Wonder Worker”.
Saint Nicholas was further transformed into today’s Santa Claus, with the poem by Clement Clarke Moore, a professor of biblical studies. This poem has been attributed to other writers, whoever wrote it though, and it has had a great influence on how we picture Saint Nicholas today.
“A visit from Saint Nicholas” (Also known as “Twas the night before Christmas”)
He was dressed all in fur, from his head to his foot,
And his clothes were all tarnished with ashes and soot;
A bundle of toys he had flung on his back,
And he looked like a peddler just opening his pack.
His eyes—how they twinkled! his dimples how merry!
His cheeks were like roses, his nose like a cherry!
His droll little mouth was drawn up like a bow,
And the beard of his chin was as white as the snow;
The stump of a pipe he held tight in his teeth,
And the smoke it encircled his head like a wreath;
He had a broad face and a little round belly,
That shook, when he laughed like a bowlful of jelly.
He was chubby and plump, a right jolly old elf. . . .
The Seven symbols of Saint Nicholas
An icon or painting of Saint Nicholas can be recognized by seven symbols:
1. mitre, a pointed hat, worn by a bishop
2. A crozier, the hooked staff, carried by a bishop
3. Three gold balls, or sometimes, coins, representing the three bags of gold, given for the dowries.
4. Three maidens, the three daughters, given the dowries
5. Three children in a tub, representing the three saved children
6. A ship or an anchor, for his patronage of sailors
7. A book, The Holy Scriptures
Images of Saint Nicholas usually show him with either all seven symbols, or four of the symbols.
Saint Nicholas is Patron Saint of Greece, Apuli (Italy), Sicily, Naples, Loraine (France) Switzerland and Norway (together with St. Olaf), in fact, he’s so popular, and he’s Patron Saint of far too many things to mention!
In Loutraki Greece, there are two churches dedicated to Saint Nicholas, one is the beautiful tiny church of Saint Nicholas, located on the shores of Vouliagmeni Lake, close by to the amazing ancient ruins of The ancient sanctuary of Heraion of Perachora
The second church, in the Loutraki area, dedicated to Saint Nicholas, is the church of Saint Nicholas the Younger, located in the Melagari region, also near Perachora, it’s the oldest Byzantine monument in the area, built in the tenth or eleventh century , experts have described it’s amazing wall paintings as historic treasures of great value.
On the sixth of December, Saint Nicholas’s Feast Day, or Name Day as it’s referred to in Greece, a local tradition is followed, where bulgar, or cracked wheat, is boiled and eaten.
The wheat symbolizes the grain that Saint Nicholas provided for the poor, during famine, when he always showed concern for the poor and the hungry. Before it’s boiled, a plate of wheat is blessed by the priest, and then popped into the pot along with the rest of the wheat, by the time the church service is over; the wheat is cooked and is ready to be shared by the congregation.
In Greece, it’s not Saint Nicholas (Santa Claus), who delivers gifts at Christmas on 25th December (which in Greece is the celebration of Christos, Christ, celebrating his birth) it’s Saint Basil (or Vasilis) who visits with his sack of gifts on 31st December, New Year’s Eve.
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