The True Saint Nicholas: Why He Matters to Christmas

The True Saint NicholasThe True Saint Nicholas: “Like many good things, this story begins with a mother’s prayer.”

I downloaded The True Saint Nicholas on a whim as I was trying to accomplish my reading for A Literary Christmas challenge but I decided to read it for my Christian Greats challenge instead.  Oh my, what a amazing book, a fascinating biography of this wonderful saint and his transformation into Santa Claus.

Saint Nicholas Jaroslav Cermák

Icon of Saint Nicholas by Jaroslav Cermák ~ source Wikipedia

Raised in a prosperous family, Nicholas showed an early intelligence, growing up to become a priest and then experiencing an unexpected appointment as the bishop of Myra.  Thus began the Great Persecution under Diocletian where Christians, being suspected as enemies of the empire, were imprisoned, thrown to lions, roasted alive or torn limb from limb.  Churches were destroyed and scriptures burned.  Galerius followed Diocletian with even stricter edicts, imprisioning and torturing Nicolas until the people became weary of bloodshed and Galerius reinstated Christian rights.  Finally Constantine, after seeing a vision of the cross, conquered the empire and proclaimed freedom of religion whereupon Nicolas was eventually released.  Both mental and physical destruction of church and families brought about by the Great Persecution was evident in Myra but Nicholas, buoyed by a new inner strength gained by his time in prison, supported people in a way that was nothing short of miraculous and “the doors of his house were open to all.”  With his deep trust in God, Nicholas faced life’s challenges with a calm yet active faith which endeared him to all people.  Tradition says he was one of the bishops who attended the Council of Nicea which gave us the Nicene Creed, slapping the face of the priest, Arius, who was spreading heresy.  He was detained for his troubles but later released.  Our good saint spent the rest of his life in Myra, serving the people and in his later years, his greatest joy were the children who came to him.  In 340, Nicholas fell ill and died on what is now his feast day, December 6th.  He was buried in a marble tomb in the city’s cathedral.

The Dowry for Three Virgins Gerard David

The Dowry for Three Virgins by Gerard David c. 1500-1510 ~ source Wikipedia

In the years following his death, stories of Saint Nicholas’ wondrous works began to spread. Miracle after miracle was attributed to this marvellous saint and legends of him lending assistance to generals, sailors, the poor, and many others caused him to become the patron saint of almost everything.  Healing oil was said to seep from his bones and his fame spread by priests and clergymen.  Chapels were dedicated in his honour and by the sixth century, the first church in Constantinople bore his name. In the late 10th century Vladimir, prince of Kiev, converted to Christianity and the Eastern Orthodox church began to grow as did the name of Saint Nicholas. In 1071, Bari, in competition with Venice and their Saint Mark, decided to rescue the bones of Nicholas from possible Muslim destruction.  Their journey was successful and they erected a church to house these wondrous relics that were famous for healing (however in 2017, using a scan, archaeologists found a cavity under Nicholas’ church in Myra raising speculation that the Bari thieves perhaps took the wrong bones and Nicholas is still in Myra).  His popularity continued, over 1500 churches, schools and hospitals, etc. were erected in his name, and finally Christopher Columbus with his voyage to the New World brought the saint’s name and deeds to North America.

Saint Nicholas Save Three Innocents from Death Ilya Repin

Saint Nicholas Save Three Innocents from Death (1888) Ilya Repin ~ source Wikipedia

From the late Middle Ages there are stories of Saint Nicholas as we know him today, as a bringer of gifts which perhaps originates with a legend where the saint leaves three bags of gold at a home for dowries for three maidens.  This tale is mentioned by both St. Thomas Aquinas and Dante in their works.  This gift giving during the Middle Ages was done on December 6th, Saint Nicholas Day.  However, during the Reformation, which caused a division in the Church, the idea of saints was continually under attack by the Protestant reformers as they actively discouraged gift giving, handing candy to children and other traditions tied to Saint Nicholas and other saints.  Yet Nicholas did not disappear but took on another guise:

  • In the Netherlands, he is Sinterklaas; he lives in Spain and visits once per year dressed as a bishop in red garments. With him is his Moorish servant named Black Peter and he flies over the rooftops on his great white horse.
  • In France, Père Noel sports a white beard, and a hooded red robe trimmed in white fur.  His mode of transport is a donkey and his helper, Père Fouettard (Father Whipper) with his dirty grey beard and dark robe, follows with his whip to deal with disobedient children.
  • In Italy, a woman with a long hooked nose who is called Befana travels with patched clothes and a broomstick.  As she had missed a chance of travelling with the wise men to see the Christ child, each year she visits every house looking for him and leaving presents behind.
  • In Northern Germany, white-bearded Weihnachtsmann (Christmas Man) carries a small tree on his shoulder.
  • In other parts of Germany, Switzerland and Austria,, the Christkindel (Christ Child) was the bringer of gifts.  This name transformed into Kris Kringle as he was brought to America.
  • In England, Father Christmas, unlike the other gift-bringers, did not  bring gifts but symbolized “mirth and the generosity of the season.”  He was personified by Charles Dickens as the Ghost of Christmas Present in A Christmas Carol.
  • In Scandinavia, we have the Little People and each household was said to house at least one Christmas elf called Jultomte in Sweden, and Julenisse in other parts of Scandinavia.  At Christmas time, as the children leave out cookies, the elves respond by leaving presents.

As the Dutch settled in the New World, they must have brought memories of Sinterklaas but many of them were Reformers and the tradition did not take hold. It wasn’t until the early 19th century when John Pintard entered the picture.  A brilliant promoter and a lover of history and tradition, he took up the idea of Sinterklaas, having Saint Nicholas serve as an icon for New York’s Heritage. At a banquet, he met Washington Irving who wrote a mock-history of New York which included Saint Nicholas who apparently appeared to the settlers and showed them where to build their city.  Pintard continued his efforts.

Sarcophagus of Saint Nicholas

Photograph of the desecrated sarcophagus in the St. Nicholas Church, Demre, where Saint Nicholas’s bones were kept before they were removed and taken to Bari in 1087 ~ source Wikipedia

Then came Clement Moore who wrote the well-loved poem, A Night Before Christmas for his children.  Moore, a wealthy and learned scholar, at first did not want to take credit for the poem but finally published it in his own name in 1844 *.  Saint Nicholas now had a firm foothold in American society.

Over the years, however, Saint Nicholas and the meaning of his tradition has faded while Santa Claus has begun to be epitomized by secular consumerism.  With this secularization, have come protests.  In France, Santa has been burned in effigy, he has been accused of “stealing the true value of Christmas”, in the Netherlands and Belgium mock arrests of Santa have been staged and he has been forbidden to appear until after December 6th, Saint Nicholas Day.  However, there have been positive actions attributed to the jolly elf, such as Francis Pharcellus Church’s response to Virginia O’Hanlon’s question, is there a Santa?:

“…….  Yes, VIRGINIA, there is a Santa Claus. He exists as certainly as love and generosity and devotion exist, and you know that they abound and give to your life its highest beauty and joy. Alas! how dreary would be the world if there were no Santa Claus. It would be as dreary as if there were no VIRGINIAS. There would be no childlike faith then, no poetry, no romance to make tolerable this existence. We should have no enjoyment, except in sense and sight. The eternal light with which childhood fills the world would be extinguished.

 

Not believe in Santa Claus! You might as well not believe in fairies! You might get your papa to hire men to watch in all the chimneys on Christmas Eve to catch Santa Claus, but even if they did not see Santa Claus coming down, what would that prove? Nobody sees Santa Claus, but that is no sign that there is no Santa Claus. The most real things in the world are those that neither children nor men can see. Did you ever see fairies dancing on the lawn? Of course not, but that’s no proof that they are not there. Nobody can conceive or imagine all the wonders there are unseen and unseeable in the world.

 

You may tear apart the baby’s rattle and see what makes the noise inside, but there is a veil covering the unseen world which not the strongest man, nor even the united strength of all the strongest men that ever lived, could tear apart. Only faith, fancy, poetry, love, romance, can push aside that curtain and view and picture the supernal beauty and glory beyond. Is it all real? Ah, VIRGINIA, in all this world there is nothing else real and abiding.

 

No Santa Claus! Thank God! he lives, and he lives forever. A thousand years from now, Virginia, nay, ten times ten thousand years from now, he will continue to make glad the heart of childhood”

 

Yes, Santa Claus is often exploited, but anything good can and often is.  The gift of giving is precious and is meant to practice unselfishness, but in moderation.  It is only when it becomes extreme is there danger of losing the true meaning of giving and generosity.  And while the stories are not necessary true in a factual sense, they are perhaps true in a more important way:

“They are morally true.  The offer generosity, kindness, justice, and self-sacrifice over avarice, cruelty, injustice, and self-indulgence.  They are about the celebration of human closeness and decency, and the caring for others.  They are about families at the hearth.  In there totality, they are about the raising of sights and efforts toward a better life.”

Bennett relates this story in a very vivid and poignant manner and through his narrative, I felt a personal connection with this admirable and real man as well as expanding my understanding of his place in history and in Christmas tradition.  There are so many stories of Nicholas’ kindness and love of his fellow man in this book that I didn’t have room to put in my review but they are so worth reading.  He was a truly admirable bishop and no better one could Santa Claus be modelled after.  So if you want to strip away all the commercialism of Christmas and discover its original meaning, this is the book for you.  I’ll certainly be looking at next Christmas in a different way!

Book #1 Christian Greats Challenge 2019 – A Biography of A Prominent Christian

2019 Christian Greats Challenge

19 thoughts on “The True Saint Nicholas: Why He Matters to Christmas

  1. Cleo, this is super interesting. I would love to read this to my kids…but I don’t know if it is read-aloud material for 10- to 14-year olds. I’d have to check it out. It just has so much history, and my kids have asked me about the history of Santa, which I could not really answer; and if I remember correctly, Bennet is a fine writer. What a great gem! I’m going to add it to my wishlist for next season.

    P.S. What is that painting title/artist in the middle of your post?

    • It’s a very accessible book and I think 10 – 14 year olds would understand and love it! I wasn’t able to add all the legends due to the long length of my post and they’re so interesting! I’ve added the caption to that picture now, Saint Nicholas Save Three Innocents from Death (1888) Ilya Repin It leaves quite an impression, doesn’t it?

  2. What an interesting biography and one I’d very much like to read. My sister married a man from Cyprus and her children have Greek names. Their saints’ name days are very important and in Cyprus more so than birthdays.

    Also I think this would be a good read for youngsters, if you did not want to teach them about Santa Claus, or if you did, it could be a nice transition.

    • I believe when you learn how Santa Claus originated from Saint Nicholas in the true spirit of giving, it makes him much more palatable! I do like in Orthodoxy how one has their own name and then also takes a name of a saint. Interesting!

  3. Such a great review Cleo and I love this history of Saint Nicolas! I went to a Catholic Convent and all the Saints including Nicolas were part of my growing up years. Your review brings back a lot of memories and I remember the sisters of the Convent never really talking of Santa Claus but rather the kindness of Saint Nicolas!

    • Thanks, bud! Did I know you went to a Catholic convent?! Wow! Why were you sent there? I’m sure you know much more about saints than I do!

      • Well, in this part of the world, Catholic Convents offer some of the best school systems. Besides this was like a generational thing – my grandmother, mother and then I, we all went to the same Catholic Convent, just in different cities. We did learn a lot about saints and Christianity as a whole, but we were quite lucky as our Nuns in a true spirit of this country, which lately has been lost, also taught us about our own religious history and celebrated all festivals. So Christianity was never forced down our throats and therefore became more of way of life for many of us!

        • After I thought about it, I think we talked about it before. The perils of having a brain too divided by a million different things. That gives me joy to hear that Christianity was never forced down your throat. Those nuns could teach some other people a thing or two! 🙂

  4. Saint Nicholas (Dutch: Sinterklaas) is a VIP in The Netherlands!
    Every year he arrives on a boat in one of the Dutch cities to kick-off his celebration on 5th of December! This year the city to have the honor was Zaanstad (see goolge images for foto’s). Great review about a saint I know very well!

    • Thanks soooo much for the extra information, Nancy! It’s always fascinating to hear how other countries celebrate holidays. I’ll have to pay more attention next December 5-6 to all the celebrations!

  5. Thanks for this recommendation about such a brave and amazing man. There is so much more to him than Santa Claus. It sounds like a great book for reading in December, but may be even easier to track down in a new year.

    • I’d take Saint Nicholas over Santa Claus any day! Santa is really only a good old American invention ….. a promotion, really. Glad to have made your day! 🙂

  6. What an interesting post, Cleo! Love the sound of this book. We’ve never done the Santa stuff, even when I was growing up in my own family, & I’m really averse to the way Christmas is celebrated now but I like the idea of showing the history & knowing the real origin. Will check to see if I can find it here. Btw, I went to a convent school too. Up until I was 13.

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