Christmas without the old man with white hair and a beard, dressed in a red coat, wearing a red jelly bag cap is hard to imagine. Wether it’s a beautiful statue placed in front of our house for decoration, on display or in advertising, you can see him and his friendly smile around every corner. But where does this trustworthy, slightly aged man come from?
The story of St. Nicholas.
I guess I won’t have to explain that Santa as we know him is a product of fiction. But the origins of the gift bringer bring us to a very real man of faith.
St. Nicholas was a bishop in Myra, located on modern day Turkey. He lived during the 4th century AC and was known as a miracle worker, which later resulted in his sanctification. He was supposedly born on the 27th or 29th of June somewhere inbetween 270 and 286 BC, while his date of death supposedly was the 6th of december somewhere from 345 to 351 BC. For this reason, the date was chosen to be his remembrance day and catholics consider it the saint’s day for some variations of his name. He’s also known as the patron saint of crafters and traders as well as shipping and travel, the old and the pregnant in addition to several groups of those in need and the weak.
He became truly famous because of countless legends which are mostly based in fiction though and aren’t supported by serious sources. One particular legend is confirmed by the bishops Ambrosius of Milan and Basilius of Caesarea and is therefore considered to be a historical fact: Spreading his wealth among the poor. This legend is one of the reason’s he’s considered one of the most importnt saint’s within the catholic church. *
Important traditions centered around St. Nicholas
From Childhood on, everyone knows the story on how St. Nicolas comes to your house on the 6th of December and brings sweets to well-behaved kids. This, as well as it’s counterpart (the punishment of naughty children) can be traces back to the legends surrounding the miracle bringer.
During the celebration of St. Nicholas, the allegory of the commisioned talents (Mt. 25,14-30) is read. The characterization of St. Nicholas as someone punishing the naughty and non-pious with a birch rod is also based on this allegory. He carries a golden book from which he knows if a child was well-behaved.
The other elemental tradition makes St. Nicholas a bringer of gifts. This goes back to him giving away all his belongings to the poor on one hand and to the legend of the donation of dowry. According to the latter, a man who went poor had three daughters whom he couldn’t properly marry away in lack of dowry. So he decided to prostitute them. To protect them from this fate, St. Nicholas (who hadn’t been a bishop yet at the time and thus wasn’t wealthy himself) threw pieces of gold through the girl’s windows.
During the reformation of the church, he was considered responsible for gift giving. Back then, gifts were exchanged on his saint’s day, not during the holidays. With the reformation and it’s refusal of the worship of saints, the day was moved to the birth of christ. In some european countries, e.g. the Netherlands and Luxembourg, the gift giving is still done on St. Nicholas’ saint’s day. By now, the children also put milk and cheese out as a thank you for the gifts on the evening before. *
When St. Nicholas became Santa
With the exodus to america, many europeans brought their traditions to the new world, The dutch for example brought „Sintaklaas“ with them who brought gifts on his saint’s day. This marks the birth of the friendly man living on the north pole. The Dutch „Sintaklaas“ became „Santa Claus“. While he initially still looked like a bishop, in 1861 caricaturist Thomas Nast change im into an old, chubby bearded man in his piece „A Visit from St. Nicholas“. This man looks really similar to the Santa from the north pole, but he’s not considered an american patriot anymore.
Since Nast kept reusing his „Nicholas“ as a caricature severeal times over the following 30 years, he became quite famous. But it wasn’t until 1915 that he got his red suit. American producer of sparkly water „White Rock“ discovered the old man and started using him for advertising in the look we know today.
He became famous worldwide when softdrink producer „Coca Cola“ came into play. They also used him for advertising and spread his stories all around the world. *
Santa Claus and St. Nicholas have lots in common, but can be considered entirely different people, as Santa is pure fiction while St. Nicholas was real. So you should be careful not to confuse them, since comparing him to a chubby old man doesn’t do St. Nicholas of Myra justice at all.