Separating the facts from the myths about St Nicholas
As Christmas approaches, we take a closer look at the saint who typifies it.
- Christopher B. Warner
- December 11, 2012
Everyone loves jolly ol’ Saint Nicholas. There is something romantic and cozy about telling Santa stories around the crackling fire. He is an icon of the Christmas season. But not everyone agrees about the real Santa Claus. Some like to picture Santa as the early-19th century, pipe-smoking elf with a bucket full of coal for naughty boys who don’t eat their cauliflower. Others prefer Santa as an emasculated, overweight consumer who gets bossed around by Mrs. Claus and thus flees the North Pole once a year to relive the glory days.
Then there is the wiry bishop who pulled Arius’ beard and punched him in the face for teaching heresy. Maybe they’re all the same guy. A 1,700-year-old hero can’t be expected to fit into just one old Santa suit. Our images of St. Nicholas seem to evolve or deteriorate based on the values of contemporary culture in different times and places.
In 1809, Washington Irving wrote Knickerbocker’s History of New York, a work of imaginative fiction that included several tales about a jolly, elfin Dutchman scampering down chimneys to bring gifts to children. The American image of Santa Claus was solidified during this time period. “A Visit from St. Nicholas,” a poem by Clement Clarke Moore published in 1823 and better known as “’Twas the Night Before Christmas,” introduced the enduring image of Santa’s reindeer and sleigh and fixed the date of his visit to Christmas Eve.
These are fun stories that make up an important part of our literary tradition and culture in America. However, stuffing chimney-hung stockings is an ancient tradition that pre-dates the American elf lore as well as the Dutch, who fill their children’s wooden clogs with gifts the night before St. Nicholas Day (December 6). Chucking gold into people’s wet socks is a custom started by a young man named Nicholas who lived in Asia Minor around 300 AD.
There are hundreds of stories about St. Nicholas of Myra. He was born in Lycia on the southwest coast of modern Turkey. His wealthy, pious parents, Theophanes and Nonna, read to him the Holy Scriptures and faithfully taught him his prayers, but apparently died while he was still young. His uncle, Bishop Nicholas of Patara, ordained young Nicholas and made him his personal assistant. The zealous youth proved himself an inspiring catechist in the Christian community and an obedient servant to his uncle. During these dutiful years he showed great kind-heartedness and generosity by distributing his inheritance to the poor.
During this time, the three grown daughters of a formerly rich inhabitant were in danger of being sold into slavery because of their father’s pennilessness. Hearing of this, young Nicholas secretly visited the man’s house at night and threw gold in at the window to provide a dowry for one of the girls. The eldest daughter was soon married, and Nicholas again made clandestine donations for the other two daughters, with equally felicitous results. Modern children who awake to an orange or to gold-foiled chocolates in their stockings reenact this story because, by all accounts, one of Nicholas’ gifts landed in a sock that was hanging by the fire to dry.
Source: Catholic World Report