Saint Archbishop Nicholas of Myra: The Original Santa Claus

Since it is now Advent/Christmas season, we witness the various celebrations emerging with Christmas lights and other Christmas paraphernalia all throughout the stores and homes of friends and family. I was running an errand earlier today and observed a gentleman dressed up as whom we’ve come to know as Santa Claus. He was slightly stout, white beard, red and white stocking cap, black belt all the features you see in a lot of Christmas ads. However, how many people know the original story of the real Santa Claus ? This is a tradition we have passed on to our children, but I wonder how many parents take the time to explain the real story. How did the true story get watered down into limited social circles ?

The original Saint Nicholas was better known in his time as Saint Nicholas, Archbishop of Myra (Myra was located in what is present day Turkey). They called him the Wonderworker because he developed a reputation for helping people in need. He was born to very pious parents, Theophanes and Nonna. Ironically, Theophanes means “epiphany” or “God appears” and Nonna is where the word “nun” is derived. It is said he started fasting at infancy and he would not accept milk from his mother on Wednesdays and Fridays until after his parents completed evening prayers. Wednesday and Fridays are still fasting days throughout the liturgical year for traditional Catholics. As a child, he thrived in his studies of Divine Scripture, sacred books, and prayer. His uncle, Bishop Nicholas of Patara, would elevate him from a reader to the priesthood. Saint Nicholas befriended a formerly rich inhabitant of Patara who had three virgin daughters. In order to provide sustenance for himself and them, he was faced with surrendering them to prostitution. In those days, dowries were required to marry off your daughter. To avoid this sinful and inhumane condition, Saint Nicholas secretly provides a bag of gold coins three times. The third time the father discovered it was Saint Nicholas who was the benefactor. Saint Nicholas asked that he keep it a secret , but if I’m telling about it now, that clearly didn’t happen.

Saint Nicholas on a pilgrimage to the Holy Land, predicted a storm would rise and threaten the ship. He saw the devil get on the ship, intending to sink it and kill all of the passengers. He calmed the waves of the sea by his prayers. Through his prayer a certain sailor who had fallen from the ship and was mortally injured was restored to health. His image runs parallel to a couple of images in scripture. Acts 27 and especially Acts 27:23-24 state that Saint Paul had a conversation with an angel during a turbulent storm on a ship, “for this very night there stood by me an angel of the God to whom I belong and whom I worship and he says ‘do not be afraid, Paul; you must stand before Caesar; and behold, God has granted you all those who sail you”. Genesis 6-8, we see Noah building an ark where he and his family are “saved through a flood”. Noah then immediately gets out of the ark and builds an altar and offers sacrifice. Boat images have been associated with the Church and associated with baptism. That’s why Noah’s family was saved through a flood. 1 Peter 3:20-21 states “[w]hen God’s patience waited in the days of Noah, during the building of the ark, in which a few, that is eight persons, were saved through water. Baptism, which corresponds to this now saves you, not as a removal of dirt from the body but as an appeal to God for a clear conscience, through the resurrection of Jesus Christ”. Saint Nicholas took on a role as a great steward of the faithful, enduring the turbulent storms and thanking Our Lord for getting them to the Jerusalem and eventually Golgotha. Fighting evil spirits, the saint made the rounds to the pagan temples and shrines of Myra, shattering idols and turning temples to dust. That same fighting spirit would be demonstrated at the First Ecumenical Council in 325 when he confronted the heretic Arius and smacked him for his heresy of denying the divinity of Our Beloved Lord. He was deprived of the emblems of his episcopal rank. However, what was removed by men was restored by Our Lord and the Blessed Mother because they were pleased with his position of defending the faith. Our Lord returned to him the Gospel and the Blessed Mother returned to him the pallium of a bishop. You have a clear example of someone who not only stood on truth but confronted heresy square in the face without the worry of rebuke.

When Saint Nicholas passed away, his relics were preserved incorrupt and flowed with curative myrrh. So you have two of the three gifts of the Magi being associated with Saint Nicholas: the gold he gave to the three maidens and myrrh from which many received healing. Due to the uprising of the Saracens in Myra, his relics were transferred to Bari. Bari today has one of the largest festivals in the world honoring Saint Nicholas.

So what’s the story with this Santa Claus of a red suit, plump and jolly, black belt, stocking cap, and sometimes with a pipe ? How did this come about in America and other places like England ? One of the names of Saint Nicholas was Sint Nikolaas (Dutch translation of Saint Nicholas) also known as Sinterklaas. The Dutch images reflect a Sinterklaas with a bishop’s hat so clearly associating it with the original Saint Nicholas. In the 1700s, there was a New York paper that discussed Dutch families and their observation of the feast of Saint Nicholas. That’s not too surprising considering that New York was originally a Dutch colony. There was a Germanic pagan figure named Odin who was this terrorizing figure that rode the skies on an eight legged horse. Clement Clark Moore in a poem called “A Visit from Saint Nicholas” replaced the eight legged horse with eight reindeer but with this jolly plump old man. Now eight is a number meaning new beginning (very important in our Catholic tradition), but now this image of the original Saint Nicholas was being altered from a surviving Germanic pagan god. Reindeer are animals from a cold regions so it just seemed appropriate to Moore. You can baptize an image and give it new meaning associated with Jesus Christ, but nothing of the sort is really happening here. Now let’s consider two other people: Washington Irving (author) and Thomas Nast (a cartoonist), who were also influencers of the Santa Claus image. A History of New York by Washington Irving was a satire twisting a Dutch tradition on Santa Claus and obviously cartoons from Thomas Nast. Also, all of these men grew up in the New York area which is heavily influenced by Protestant culture, mainly Puritanism, which is the antithesis of Catholicism. They weren’t just influenced by it. Notice the absence of the bishop hat ? These men worshipped in the Episcopalian church. Nast was raised Catholic, but after coming to America, there we’re reports of him no longer worshipping as a Catholic. Thus, you can’t possibly acknowledge things like saints or stories about Saint Nicholas’ relationship with the Blessed Mother. England experienced a similar feat with its influence of the Protestant Reformation with its Father Christmas image.

People complain all the time how the Christ has been removed from Christmas. I’d say that’s true. We’re in the season of Advent, and we and frankly all Christians should consider the holiness of this man as we prepare for the coming of our king. Santa Claus has been a figure fun for children indeed. However, we eventually need to share with them this story prior to them becoming adults.

Dominus vobiscum.

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