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Saint Nicholas: The Man, The Myth, The Legend

Medieval History | December 6, 2019

Christmas party 1820 with St. Nicholas. (Photo by Imagno/Getty Images)

"Saint Nicholas" is just one of the many names by which we call the jolly old elf who (allegedly) brings us presents every Christmas, but while the existence of Santa Claus remains up for debate, we know that Saint Nicholas was a real person. Over the years, the real-life story of this Christian saint merged with folklore from Scandinavia to form the basis of our modern-day Santa Claus myths, but there are still a few differences. Let's take a closer look at the real life of Saint Nicholas to see how the roots of the Santa stories began. 

Saint Nicholas was a Greek living in Turkey. (catholic.org)

A Turkish Bishop

The real Saint Nicholas was a third-century bishop from Greece who served in the region that is now Turkey. He headed up a large congregation of faithful Christians and even served on the Council of Nicaea to debate biblical theories. According to legend, Saint Nicholas was a bit of a hothead in his youth, even resorting to violence on occasion. One story holds that he once took off his sandal and slapped a heretic across the face with it during an argument. While it is difficult to prove these claims, we do know that when the bones of Saint Nicholas were unearthed, his nose showed signs that it had been broken before.

As a young man, Saint Nicholas inherited a lot of money. (fisheaters.com)

A Rich Young Man With A Giving Heart

Saint Nicholas was orphaned as a teenager, leaving him with a lot of time and even more money on his hands. Most teenagers would manage to cause an impressive amount of trouble under such circumstances, but fortunately, Li'l Nicky had a benevolent heart and giving spirit. He performed one of his first good deeds after he learned about a poor family in the area with three daughters whose father had fallen on hard times and lost all his money. With little means to feed them and no dowry to marry them off, the daughters were about to be sold into slavery to pay the father's debts.

Saint Nicholas first left gifts in stockings. (smithsonianmag.com)

Stockings By The Fireplace

Saint Nicholas was not about to let this happen. He visited the family's home with a gift of a small bag of gold the night before the oldest daughter's sale was scheduled, but he found the doors locked and the family asleep. Leaving a bag of gold on a doorstep where everyone could see (and take) it didn't seem like a wise idea, so he climbed onto the roof and dropped the bag down the chimney, where it landed in the stockings the oldest daughter had washed and hung to dry. The next morning, when she took down her stockings, she found the miraculous blessing of enough gold to keep her freedom.

The next two nights, before the other two daughters were to be sold, Saint Nicholas repeated his gifts. In all, he gave the family enough money to pay their debts, buy food, and provide a decent dowry for each daughter. Legends spread throughout the region about the gifts left by Saint Nicholas in stockings by the fireplace. 

Saint Nicholas resurrected three dead boys. (mythcrafts.com)

Raising The Dead

Another, much more morbid story associated with Saint Nicholas involved three dead boys he found in the cellar of an inn. In this tale, Saint Nicholas sensed evil immediately upon walking into the inn, and sure enough, it turned out the innkeeper had recently kidnapped three young boys. Unbeknownst to the rest of the inn's patrons, the innkeeper had killed them, dismembered their bodies, and hid them in pickle barrels in the cellar. Saint Nicholas inexplicably knew that this crime had occurred, and after he assisted the authorities in bringing the innkeeper to justice, he removed the boys' bodies from the barrels and brought them back to life for good measure. The boys were reunited with their thankful parents, and the legend of Saint Nicholas grew.

Saint Nicholas gained a reputation for generosity. (smithsonianmag.org)

Saint Nicholas's Generosity Was Contagious

After his death in the year 343, Saint Nicholas was named the patron saint of children, sailors, prisoners, and the poor. Nuns in the 12th century left little gifts for children on December 6, the day of his death, with notes indicating that the presents were left by Saint Nicholas. This Christmas-like celebration became known as Saint Nicholas Day, but he was not yet linked to Christmas and Santa Claus.

Images of Saint Nicholas depict him as a grandfatherly figure. (forbes.com)

Images Of St. Nicholas

By the 1500s, images of Saint Nicholas had evolved to look more like a kindly grandfather figure. Elements of the Norse god Odin and the Roman god Saturn can be seen in his depictions, and his legend likewise began to imbue him with magical abilities, such as flight and omniscience. Parents invoked Saint Nicholas's name to encourage their children to be polite and say their prayers.

The shift from Saint Nicholas to baby Jesus. (mcall.com)

Saint Nicholas And The Protestant Reformation

Following the Protestant Reformation of the 1500s, Catholic saints like Nicholas fell out of favor. The community insisted on retaining the tradition of a December gift-giving holiday, however, so they simply began celebrating Christmas instead of Saint Nicholas Day. The mythology of this holiday held that it was baby Jesus who brought the gifts, but even young children understood that a baby couldn't carry and deliver all those presents. He needed a helper. 

Elements of Scandinavian and German folklore were added to the story of Saint Nicholas. (collective-evolution.com)

Scandinavian And Germanic Helpers

Folklore from the German and Nordic cultures included tales of intimidating figures who frightened children into behaving, and this was just the sort of helper baby Jesus needed. Over time, the stories of these figures blurred with the stories of Saint Nicholas to become the Sinterklaas legend of the Netherlands. 

Thomas Nast's rendition of Santa. (historydaily.org)

Saint Nicholas In The United States

It's impossible to escape in the latter half of the year these days, but Christmas was not a major holiday in the early days of the United States. Thanks to a series of poets and writers---including Washington Irving, Clement Clarke Moore, and the anonymous author of The Children's Friend---interest in Christmas, Saint Nicholas, and winter gift-giving caught on in America in the 1800s. Artist Thomas Nast drew some of the earliest depictions of Saint Nicholas as Santa Claus, which helped to put a face to the holiday gift giver. This was the birth of the modern Santa Claus with the fluffy white beard and red suit. You can hardly blame the old saint for the costume change---getting down a chimney in all that embroidery must have tempted even him toward blasphemy.

Tags: Catholicism | Christmas | saint nicholas | santa claus

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Karen Harris

Writer

Karen left the world of academic, quitting her job as a college professor to write full-time. She spends her days with her firefighter husband and four daughters on a hobby farm with an assortment of animals, including a goat named Atticus, a turkey named Gravy, and a chicken named Chickaletta.