In the 1950s and 60s there was an American television program called To Tell The Truth, in which panelists had to guess which of three contestants was the “real” person described, generally someone with an unusual occupation or life-story. The expression used in the show, “will the real (Name) please stand up?” has entered into the vernacular, and it’s particularly relevant today as we try and figure out who this figure is who has so dominated our experience of Christmas.
Because, “to tell the truth,” we don’t know a great deal about St. Nicholas, or exactly how an obscure bishop morphed into the fat, jolly, materialistic Santa Claus beloved by children today. We don’t really know much about him at all, in terms of hard facts. Yet both Eastern and Western Churches honor him, and it’s said that, after the Blessed Virgin, he’s the saint most pictured by Christian artists!
Historically, we can pinpoint only one verifiable fact: Nicholas was the fourth-century bishop of Myra, a city in Lycia, a province of Asia Minor in what is now Turkey. He was probably exiled and imprisoned under the Emperor Diocletian; upon his release he attended the Council of Nicaea in 325. He died in Myra and was buried in his cathedral church. And that’s it for facts.
Truths aren’t always factual
As with many of the saints, however, we are able to capture the relationship which Nicholas had with God through the admiration which Christians have had for him—an admiration expressed in the colorful stories told and retold through the centuries.
- Perhaps the best-known story about Nicholas concerns his charity toward a poor man unable to provide dowries for his three daughters of marriageable age. Rather than see them sold into slavery, Nicholas secretly tossed a bag of gold through the poor man’s window on three separate occasions, thus enabling the daughters to be married. Over the centuries, this particular legend evolved into the custom of gift-giving on the saint’s feast.
- A story is told of his participation in the Council Of Nicaea, in which Nicholas slapped the heretic Arius in the face. For such a breach of decorum, the bishop was brought before Constantine, who stripped him of his office and had him thrown into prison. During the night, Jesus with his mother Mary appeared to Nicholas, Jesus bringing the book of the Gospels, and Mary the bishop’s stole; in this way Nicholas was reinstated. Many Eastern Church icons of St. Nicholas reflect this event with Jesus on the left returning the Gospels, and Mary on the right, bringing the bishop’s stole or omophorion.
- In France the story is told of three small children, wandering in their play until lost, lured, and captured by an evil butcher. St. Nicholas appears and appeals to God to return them to life and to their families. And so St. Nicholas is the patron and protector of children.
- In 1087, Nicholas’ bones were stolen from Turkey by some Italian merchant sailors. The bones are now kept in the Church named after him in the Italian port of Bari. On St. Nicholas feast day (6th December), the sailors of Bari still carry his statue from the cathedral out to sea, so that he can bless the waters and give them safe voyages throughout the year.
So, what about Santa Claus? Europeans became interested in the saint in the middle ages, after his bones had been interred in Italy and pilgrimages made to the cathedral there. Eventually his popularity reached northern Europe, where stories of the monk mingled with Teutonic folktales of elves and sky-chariots. In the Netherlands, St. Nicholas took on the Dutch-friendly spelling Sinterklaas. He was depicted as a tall, white-bearded man in red clerical robes who arrived every December 6 on a boat to leave gifts or coal-lumps at children’s homes.
Stories of Sinterklaas were likely brought to the New World by Dutch settlers in the Hudson River valley. In his satirical History of New-York in 1809, Washington Irving portrayed St. Nicholas as a portly Dutchman who flew the skies in a wagon, dropping gifts down chimneys. In 1823 another New Yorker, Clement Clarke Moore, penned the poem, “A Visit from Saint Nicholas,” which traded the wagon for a sleigh drawn by “eight tiny reindeer.” Beginning in the Civil War, cartoonist Thomas Nast published the first of a series of popular depictions of a rotund and jolly St. Nicholas, and Nast was the first to suggest that St. Nicholas lived not in Turkey, Italy, or Holland, but at the North Pole.
How do people celebrate St. Nicholas’ Day?
- In Russian villages, St. Nicholas is revered as merciful intercessor for working people. Merchants and others revere St. Nicholas the Miracle-worker as the patron of all who travel on land or sea, and have dedicated marketplace churches to him. Ship captains carry St. Nicholas icons on board ship. Long-haul truck drivers keep his icon on the dashboard, hoping for protection from accident. Metropolitan Hilario has noted that St. Nicholas unites the West and the East, coming to the aid of all those who turn to him in sincere and ardent prayer.
- In France, bakeries and home kitchens are a hive of activity as spiced gingerbread cookies and brioche shaped like the good saint are baked. At school children learn St. Nicolas songs and poems and draw and paint St. Nicolas pictures and crafts. Saint Nicolas visits nursery schools, giving children chocolates and sometimes even a little present.
- Some English parishes and cathedrals have recovered the Boy Bishop custom which dropped out of favor in the 16th century. One of the choristers is selected to serve as the Boy or Nicholas Bishop. He wears full episcopal robes and carries the Lord Bishop’s pastoral staff. At the words from the Magnificat, “He has brought down the powerful from their thrones, and lifted up the lowly,” the Boy Bishop, illustrating such an inversion, processes through the Quire and takes the Bishop’s seat. For example, in Hereford Cathedral, the commissioned Boy Bishop preaches a sermon, leads the prayers, and asks for God’s blessing on the people.
- In Germany, children practice poems and songs for Sankt Nikolaus and make little presents for him. Friends and neighbors come to share in the fun. Candles on the Advent wreath and the big Christmas pyramid with a nativity scene in the center are lit. Stories are read or songs sung as everyone waits for a knock on the door. When it comes, they all know it is Sankt Nikolaus, who comes in with his big book, golden crozier, and a big heavy sack. One of the children gets to hold the golden staff. Each child (and sometimes adults, too!) stand in front of the saint. Nikolaus asks each child, “Have you behaved yourself?” “Do you do your homework?” “Do you keep your room tidy?” “Do you help your parents?” Then he opens his big sack and gives presents and candies and treats for all to share.
A reminder for everybody
Where does that leave us as Catholics in the 21st century? Today is December 6th, St. Nicholas’ feast day, and no matter how his image has changed, what is consistent throughout his life on earth and his memory since his death is his generosity. Celebrating his feast day provides a bit of special festivity early in the waiting weeks of Advent: in his generosity, St. Nicholas points to Jesus, the heart of Christmas.
St. Nicholas reminds us of God’s love, God coming amongst the ordinariness of us, arriving amongst the noise and sound, ready for us to set out on our journey. My wish is that we come to Advent this year mindful of cracks in our society, mindful of people in need, because St. Nicholas didn’t forget those who were hungry and homeless.
Let’s honor him by doing the same.