Today, on 6 December, the Church celebrates the feast day of one of the most popular saints throughout the world, St. Nicholas. In the United States, St. Nicholas is typically associated with Santa Claus in songs, Christmas carols and traditions, however, St. Nicholas and Santa Claus are far from being synonymous.
St. Nicholas was a Bishop who lived in the fourth century in a place called Myra in Asia Minor (now Turkey), therefore there is little that we can know with certainty about this legendary saint.
He was a very rich man, because his parents died when he was young and left him a lot of money. Despite this, he was also a very kind man and had a reputation for helping the poor and giving secret gifts to people who needed it.
Some accounts have him at the Council of Nicea in 325 refuting Arianism (an ancient heresy which distorted Christ and his relationship with God the Father). Legends also testify that he was involved in a vicious battle against paganism including a cleansing of a temple of Artemis.
There are several legends about St. Nicholas, but we do not know if these are true or not.
One of the most famous legend about St. Nicholas and linked to Christmas traditions, tells about the custom of hanging up stockings to put presents. St. Nicholas is regarded as a patron of children due to a popular legend that has about a thousand different versions.
According to the story, there was a poor man in Myra, who had three daughters. The man was so poor that he did not have enough money for a dowry (a sum of money paid to the bridegroom by the brides parents on the wedding day. This still happens in some countries, even today), so his daughters couldn’t get married, which in those days meant that the girls would likely become prostitutes.
One night, Nicholas secretly dropped a bag of gold down the chimney and into the house, so the oldest daughter was then able to be married. The bag fell into a fire, and had been hung above the fireplace to dry.
This was repeated for the second daughter and finally, determined to discover the person who had given him the money, the father secretly hid near the fire every evening until he caught Nicholas with the bag of gold.
Nicholas begged the man to not tell anyone what he had done, because he did not want to bring attention to himself. But soon the news got out and when anyone received a gift, it was thought that maybe it was from Nicholas.
Because of his kindness Nicholas became a Saint.
But St. Nicholas is not only the saint of children but also of sailors!
One story tells of him helping some sailors that were caught in a terrible storm off the coast of Turkey. The storm was raging around them and all the men were terrified that their ship would sink beneath the giant waves. So, they prayed to St. Nicholas to help them. Suddenly, he was standing on the deck before them, he ordered the sea to be calm, the storm died away, and they were able to sail their ship safely to port.
Historically, St. Nicholas was exiled from Myra and later put in prison during the persecution by the Emperor Diocletian. No one is really knows something official about his death, but it was on 6th December in either 345 or 352. In 1087, his 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, in southern Italy. On St. Nicholas feast day, today, 6th December, the sailors of Bari still carry his statue from the Cathedral out to sea, so that he can bless the waters and so give them safe journeys throughout the year.
Yes. But why St. Nicholas became Santa Claus? In the 16th Century in northern Europe, after the reformation, the stories and traditions about St. Nicholas became unpopular.
Became a tradition that someone had to deliver gifts to children at Christmas, so in the UK, particularly in England, he became “Father Christmas” or “Old Man Christmas”, an old character from stories plays during the middle ages in the UK and parts of northern Europe. In France, he was then known as “Père Nöel”, while in some countries and in some parts of Austria and Germany, present giver became the “Christkind” a golden-haired baby, with wings, who symbolizes the new born baby Jesus.
In the early USA his name was “Kris Kringle” (from the Christkind). Later, Dutch settlers in the USA took the old stories of St. Nicholas with them and Kris Kringle and St Nicholas became “Sinterklaas” the modern “Santa Claus”.
Many countries, especially in Europe, celebrate St. Nicholas’ Day on 6th December.
For example in Holland, children leave clogs or shoes out on the 5th December (St. Nicholas Eve) to be filled with presents. They also believe that if they leave some hay and carrots in their shoes for Sinterklaas’s horse, they will be left some sweets!
St. Nicholas became popular again in the Victorian era when writers, poets and artists rediscovered the old stories.
In 1823 the famous poem ‘”A Visit from St. Nicholas” or “T’was the Night before Christmas” was published. Dr Clement Clarke Moore later claimed that he had written it for his children. The poem describes St. Nicholas with eight reindeer and gives them their names. They became really well known in the song “Rudolph the Red nosed Reindeer” (but this is another story!), written in 1949.
Over the years, the UK Father Christmas and the American Santa Claus became more and more alike, and are now one and the same.
Some people say that Santa lives at the North Pole and in Finland, they say that he lives in the north part of their country called Lapland.
But everyone agrees that he travels in the sky on a sledge that is pulled by reindeer, that he comes into houses down the chimney at night and places presents for the children in socks, below the Christmas tree, or by the fire place.
Most children receive their presents on Christmas Eve night, but in some countries they get their presents on St. Nicholas’ Eve, December 5th.
There’s also a Christmas Urban Legend that says that Santa’s red suit was designed by Coca-Cola, but this is definitely not true!
Long before Coca-Cola had been invented, St Nicholas had worn his Bishop’s red robes. During Victorian times and before that, he wore a range of colors (red, green, blue and brown fur) but red was always his favorite!
In January 1863, the magazine Harper’s Weekly published the first illustration of St Nicholas by Thomas Nast. We already know that over the next 20 years Thomas Nast continued to draw Santa every Christmas and his works became very popular. Nast designed Santa’s look on some historical information about Santa and the poem “A Visit from St. Nicholas”.
Santa was first used in Coke adverts in the 1920s, with Santa looking like the drawings of Thomas Nast. In 1931, the classic “Coke Santa” was drawn by artist Haddon Sundblom.
Coke has continued to use Santa in their adverts since the 1930s. In 1995 they also introduced the “Coca-Cola Christmas truck” in TV adverts. The red truck, covered with lights and with the classic “Coke Santa” on its sides is now a famous part of recent Christmas history!