Today is the Feast Day of Saint Nicholas, (270-343) who evolved, through the centuries, into Santa Claus, because of his legendary roles as a protector of children and secret gift-giver. This was quite an evolution, in more ways than one! Nicholas is known alternatively as Nicholas of Myra, as he served as Bishop of that southern Turkish city (now called Demre) for much of his life, and Nicholas of Bari, as his relics were removed to southern Italy in the eleventh century. The Italians who confiscated the relics of the revered Saint claimed that were acting in the name of “security”, as Myra was increasingly vulnerable to Muslim attacks, but one could certainly ascertain that it was a case of simple theft. There are many stories associated with Nicholas’s holy works, so many that he is also referred to as Nicholas “the wonder-worker”, but the most popular relates a rather dark tale in which Nicholas visited an inn during a regional famine, and quickly discerned that the innkeeper had chopped up three boys and encased them in brine to sell them as pickled pork. Nicholas brought the innocents back to life, and evolved into the savior of children who found themselves “in a pickle”.
British Library MS Stowe 12, “The Stowe Breviary”, 1322-25; Dutch woodcut print, 1480-1490, and hand-colored engraving from a Flemish prayer-book by the “Monogrammist M”, 1500-1525, both British Museum.
Images of Nicholas with the resuscitated boys (in their pickle barrel) can be found in all manner of religious texts from the medieval and early modern eras, as illustrated by those above, and were also the single focus of a succession of paintings and prints from the Renaissance and after. When Nicholas is not in the company of the boys, he is often pictured with the young women whom he saved from lives of prostitution by secretly gifting their father with gold for their dowries, another work of wonder that solidified his connection with the young (and vulnerable).
Two altarpiece panels representing the holy deeds of Saint Nicholas by Bicci di Lorenzo, 1433-35: Saint Nicholas Resuscitating Three Youths and Saint Nicholas Providing Dowries, Metropolitan Museum of Art.
The religious history of Saint Nicholas is pretty easy to reconstruct, but when hagiography meets folklore it gets a bit more confusing. One thing is certain: the transformation of the saint into the jolly dispenser of gifts is much more a phenomenon of western Christian culture than it is of the Orthodox Church, which still recognizes Saint Basil of Caesarea as the benevolent gift-giver (on his feast day of January 1). The other factor that seems pretty clear is the role of the Reformation. The modern Santa Claus seems to be an amalgamation of the Dutch and Flemish Sinterklaas, the English “Father Christmas” and a secularized Saint Nicholas. While the Dutch Sinterklaas still arrives on the eve of St. Nicholas, wearing a Bishop’s hat and bearing a staff, the Protestant prohibition of his veneration gradually transformed him into a secular figure. Across the English Channel, a similarly-dressed (and aged), “Father Christmas” reemerges only after the Reformation and Revolution, when the Restoration ushers in a return to the “merry old England” of memory. And when these figures cross the Atlantic, the melting pot of American culture (and Coca Cola) gradually transforms them into our very own Santa Claus.
Engraving of Saint Nicholas by Antonius Wierix, 1604, British Museum; Sinterklaas celebration in Amsterdam, 2011, and a Father Christmas card, c. 1890, Victoria & Albert Museum.