Need to Know - Saint Nicholas
Updated: Mar 1
The sixth of December is the feast day for the Greek Bishop who became the most iconic character in western culture and adored by children. Having gone through extraordinary reinvention and becoming a marketing superstar whilst being able to shed some fairly gruesome horror stories on the way
Saint Nick, Father Christmas, Santa Claus, Kris Kringle, the ever jolly fat dude that delivers presents to kids worldwide. There cannot be that much we don't know about his story?
Where does he come from?
Lapland, the North Pole...duh?!
No, he was born in a village called Patara, in modern-day Turkey, what was Greece in the third century. His dates are widely recognised as 15 March 270 - 6 December 343)
Oh, I was not expecting that!
Well, he was the child of wealthy parents and raised a devout Christian before his parents died in an epidemic while he was still young.
Oh, well, he was not expecting that!
No, but he took his parents teaching to heart and following the instructions of Jesus to "sell his property and give the money to the poor" he used his entire inheritance to assist the needy and the sick.
Crumbs, so he was a gift-giver from a very early age!
Exactly, he dedicated his life to God and was made Bishop of Myra while still a young man. He became known far and wide for his generosity, love for children and concern for sailors.
Love for children, concern for sailors....?
Careful now. He was exiled and imprisoned under Roman Emperor Diocletian who persecuted Christians. The prisons were full of bishops, priests and deacons, so much so, that it was said there was no room to hold the murderers, thieves and bandits.
Love for children, concern for sailors, spent time in prison....?
I know what you are doing. With the accession of Constantine he was released and he is noted as one of the attendees at the First Council of Nicaea in 325.
So as I understand it, to become a Saint, someone needs to have performed some miracles?
There are several tales of St. Nicholas' generosity and miracles. Probably the most famous is the story of providing three bags of gold to an indebted man to cover the dowry of his daughters. This action is said to have saved the girls from a life of prostitution.
More gift-giving then?
Yes, and the story goes that he threw the bags of gold through the window of the house, over three nights. Christian devotional art of the middle ages frequently represented this act.
Easier than using a chimney?
Well quite. He is also said to have rebuked a storm on a ship to the Holy Land. This miracle is seen as the reason he has been venerated as the patron saint of sailors.
I thought he was the Patron Saint of Children?
Our mate Saint Nick racked up multiple patronages and if the stories are to be believed, he was quite an extraordinary fellow. He is said to have saved three innocent men from execution. He stepped up to force the executioner's sword to the floor, released their chains and chastised a juror who had taken a bribe.
He sounds like a dude with stones...
This story has been blended in with other stories including one which has him chastising three Generals for allowing their soldiers to misbehave. These Generals were then slandered and Saint Nicholas convinced the emperor to release them in a dream.
In a dream?
You said you wanted miracles
We've heard these sort of tales before though, what sets Saint Nicholas apart from the other Saints of his day?
Well, one of the most famous stories attributed to him has faded away but was a beloved tale in the middle ages and the early modern era involves him resurrecting a trio of boys who had been murdered and dismembered by an innkeeper who planned to sell their bodies for meat during a famine.
Say what now? Pickled dismembered children being sold for meat?
Yes, he apparently sensed the crime and resurrected them. It is widely understood to be a late medieval period invention with no earlier source to confirm the story but it leads to a fascinating development. It was so well-loved the story was depicted in stained glass, paintings, tapestries and frescoes it became widely reproduced until the scene in the story of Saint Nicholas standing over he children in a barrel became the most common image. As the story started to fade from memory the image led to the understanding that Saint Nicholas was the patron saint of children and, bizarrely enough, brewers.
Children in a barrel, it is is all so obvious!
Yes, and having been a young bishop also led to the tradition in late medieval England of yuletide "Boy bishops". This saw boys carry out the functions of priests and instructing their elders. It was the connection to children and his generosity that lead to his transition to the Father Christmas role of the modern age.
Without the murderous butchery and beer?
Thankfully. In Greece and Italy, he has long been considered a favourite by sailors and fishermen and is the patron saint of several cities with harbours. In Greece, he can almost be considered a Christianized version of Poseidon, referred to as the "Lord of the Sea". In fact across Europe between 1200 and 1500 he was depicted like a Norse Odin or Roman Saturn, as a white-bearded man with the powers of flight. He not only delivered gifts but also ensured good behaviour as kids were required to say their prayers and be good to ensure a reward.
So we have the beard, we have gifts, we have flight. Things are starting to take shape!
Yes, the next adaptation happens after the Protestant reformation. The host of the Saints fell out of favour which left parents with a quandary. You love your kids, but who will bring the gifts? Strangely, this role fell to baby Jesus, but due to his limited ability to carry gifts and not really having a fear factor to keep children in line, he was accompanied by a scary helper. It is this figure, albeit loosely based on Saint Nicholas, that turns into the Santa figure. This is the era where the Krampus character comes from.
Yes, scary Christmas punisher and kidnapper of children. We discuss him in our alt Xmas flicks programme.
Yeah, the Christmas devil, said to be the Norse God of Hell. He would whip children and chain them to carry them away to the underworld. The character exists in a balance with the Good Saint Nicholas. Krampusnacht is celebrated in central and Eastern Europe on the 5th December, the night before the Feast of Saint Nicholas.
So back to brutality toward children again? Sheesh
I know, I know, but it is the rediscovery of Saint Nicholas that makes Christmas the modern, warm family-driven goodwill holiday that we know today. Christmas had been rejected by many Christian communities, having become an alcohol-fuelled, "rowdy community blow out" that resembled the pagan Saturnalia mid-winter festival.
Alcohol fuelled rowdy blowout...sounds about right!
Behave! So during the early 19th century, a series of poets and writers worked diligently to remodel Christmas as a family celebration, and the centrepiece of this project was Saint Nicholas. Washington Irving's 1809 Knickerbocker's History of New York is the first to portray Nicholas flying in a wagon, smoking a pipe and delivering presents to good children. By 1821 he has been stripped of all religious iconography and dressed in the shaggy furs of the Germanic gift bringers of the early Protestant tradition. You can see how Santa Claus can emerge from the Dutch and German "Sinter Klaas" when spoken in a broad New Yorker accent.
By 1822 we finally get "A Visit From St. Nicholas" from Clement Clarke Moore, better known today as "The Night Before Christmas".
So this is where the modern image is crafted?
Yes and no. He wrote it for his children and had no intention of adding to the Santa Claus cultural phenomenon. It was published anonymously the next year and from there on in, Santa is a plump man riding a sleigh pulled by eight reindeer.
The dude in red is born!
Not quite. It wasn't until the late 19th century that full-sized adult dressed in red fur and white trim based in the North Pole is all tied down. Before then, the poem left a degree of interpretation and there are many examples of Saint Nicholas being depicted in wildly different ways until then. Including imagery of him looking like George Washington riding a broomstick.
A broomstick? I was not expecting that!
It comes down to political cartoonist Thomas Nast to provide us with the first imagery of Santa Claus as a Grandfatherly jolly man in a red suit. This was in a cartoon of Santa binging gifts to civil war troops. It is suspected that he called upon the description of Saint Nicholas blended with the propaganda iconography of Uncle Sam.
So this was all happening in America, right?
Yes, and once the Kris Kringle styled Germanic gift-bringer had been repackaged in the new world, the character underwent a strange reverse migration to Europe replacing the Krampus scary gift bringers. Effectively, he tamed the Brothers Grimm scary fairy tale characters that were his ancestors and rapidly replaced them!
So Coca Cola did not invent Santa?
No, they built on the successful imagery that came a full forty years before they existed!
So, there we are, the journey is complete!
Well, no, Santa had more challenges to face.
What could possibly challenge Santa now?
Free gifts for all from the magic Grand Pa...sounds delightfully socialist!
You will get complaints! No, Stalin made a concerted effort to abolish Christmas
Like the Sheriff of Nottingham?
Exactly! The celebration of Christmas was cancelled along with all the traditions of the gift
bringers yet in the 1930s Stalin needed to garner support so he authorised the return of the gift-bringer as "Grandfather Frost" as a New Year gift-bringer and dressed in blue furs to avoid confusion with the western, capitalist pig dog Santa!
And you tell me off! Bet he was right miffed though, missed out on the red suit.
Agreed. The Communists imposed Grandfather Frost on eastern European culture in the cold war era but locals, in general, turned their nose up at the efforts and openly returned to their original cultural traditions post-1989
So Santa was part of a culture war?
Yes, and is still heavily political. Santa often marches arm in arm with the US military, especially after world war II in which he was a welcome symbol of US generosity.
And long may his reign to continue!
Well, Santa is under fire in many cultures now as he either represents a secular celebration of Christmas rather than religious or because he is not local. The Czech Republic, The Netherlands, Austria and Latin America all have strong anti-Santa movements in an effort to preserve their native traditions.
Maybe that is something for Spain to consider, after all, they have the three kings tradition as the gift bringers.
Yes, it would make my Christmas bill significantly cheaper. Maybe it would be an act of generosity to Saint Nicholas to reduce his intense one-night global tour responsibilities?
Well absolutely, maybe he can return to his roots of brewing beer for sailors and pickling kids?
For the love of....oh..wait...we could look into the fascinating story of his relics and what happened to his body after his death....
I could show you this hilarious meme which suggests Saint Nicholas was a Klingon?
Oh! Klingon meme please....