The modern image of Santa Claus is iconic and widely known. A Red suit, a sleigh pulled by reindeers, and a sack full of gifts instantly pop into your head. The magical character makes you forget the fact there really was a St. Nicholas. The real character and the legends attributed to him might be more interesting than the guy in the red suit.
Some legends have St. Nicholas finding dead dismembered children in a barrel and bringing them back to life. Another legend has St. Nick punching out a heretic at the Council of Nicaea in front of a Roman emperor. Still another has the saint saving young girls from prostitution by putting gold coins in their stockings.
The myths and mystery make it hard to tell what is true and what is false. But a real Nicholas did exist. Join me on a little trip where we examine the original inspiration for the Jolly Old Elf.
If you think the idea of a big guy in a red suit flying around the world and eating cookies is strange, you haven’t seen anything yet.
The World Of Nicholas
St. Nicholas — Painting By Jaroslav Čermák (1831–1878) Via Wikipedia Creative Commons
“There is remarkably little in the way of surviving documents that mention St. Nicholas. This isn’t surprising considering that the third century world St. Nicholas was born into and the fourth century world of his maturity was a violent one. Even under the Pax Romana, life in the vast Roman Empire was never safe.”
— St. Nicholas by Joe L. Wheeler
In his book, Joe Wheeler mentions that the chaotic world of Saint Nicholas of Myra was one where records were sketchy. In 270 to 343 AD, the Roman Empire was a dangerous place to be. Barbarians regularly raided parts of the empire and diseases struck down large segments of the population.
Wheeler also mentions that paper was not available in these times. You generally used parchment, papyrus, or velum. This type of material wasn’t known for its survivability, so records are hard to come by. He also mentions regular purges where religious icons would be destroyed because the items were thought to be worshiped instead of God.
Nicholas is believed to have been born in Myra around where modern Turkey is today in the later 3rd century. This would be in the Eastern section of the Roman Empire in this time period. The future bishop would be raised in a Christian community originally founded by St. Paul the Apostle.
The church in those days was a much more integral part of the community. There really wasn’t such things as government services for those who fell on misfortunes. The church would provide this service and take care of the community. Wheeler quotes historian D.L. Cann’s book, Saint Nicholas, Bishop of Myra, and says:
“The imperial and provincial governments offered no regular social service programs — people simply had to take care of themselves or starve. Into that abyss of human need, ignored by provincial and imperial authorities, stepped the Christian communities. Led by bishops, priests, deaconesses, and deacons, the faithful carried out their ministry to the urban poor. The Christian churches of the first four centuries provided hospice care for the sick, as well as support for widows, orphans and the unfortunate. Christians followed the unique Jewish practice of regularizing benevolence and cultivating solidarity within their congregations. From the teachings in the Gospels, The Christians, and young Nicholas with them, cultivated a strong sense of responsibility to care for the souls and bodies of those in need.”
Nicholas would be absorbed by that community and taken in by the Church when his parents died. He’d study to be a clergy member, eventually being promoted to the bishop of his local community at a young age.
Persecution Of The Christians
“Men were flogged till the flesh hung from their bones, or their flesh was scraped to the bone with shells; salt and vinegar was poured upon the wounds; the flesh was cut off bit by bit and fed to waiting animals; or, bound to crosses, men were eaten piece-meal by starved beasts. Some victims had their fingers pierced with sharp reeds under the nails; some had their eyes gouged out; some were suspended by a hand or a foot; some had molten lead poured down their throats; some were beheaded, or crucified or beaten to death with clubs; some were torn apart by being tied to the momentarily bent branches of trees.”
— Historian Eusebius, quoted in St. Nicholas by Joe L. Wheeler
In the year 303AD, the Roman emperor Galerius would begin to see these Christians as a threat. He'd order Christians to begin worshiping the Roman gods. When they refused, he set about a purge the likes of which had never been seen in the Roman Empire. Churches burned and Christians were horribly tortured.
Bishop Nicholas would not hide during these persecutions. He'd stay planted in his place of worship and be captured by the authorities. He'd suffer routine torture, but never worship the Roman gods.
After 8 years, the persecution finally ended. Galerius had failed. The Christians would continue to choose death instead of abandoning their God. Wheeler notes that many began to turn against the emperor, tired of the horrible massacres. Even the emperor's wife turned against the persecutions. Galerius would give up and make Christianity an allowable religion.
The records available say Nicholas would be released from prison and go back to his community. According to a story by Brian Handwerk in National Geographic, it is thought that the remains of Nicholas were stolen in the 11th century and moved to Italy.
The remains, now in the Basilica di San Nicola, were examined in the 1950’s. Measurements, pictures, and X rays were taken. Eventually a facial anthropologist would use all this data, along with current technology to reconstruct the face of the saint. It was found the face had a horribly broken nose.
This would lend some credence that this may be the body of St. Nicholas — due to the nature of his brutal treatment in prison. But no one can say for certain. Most of the evidence of the saint comes from long after his death from secondhand sources.
Wheeler states that the first valid mention of Nicholas was by the lector of Byzantium between 510 to 515. The Lector says that one named Nicholas of Myra of Lycia attended the Council of Nicaea. Wheeler also mentions that churches began being built named after a St. Nicholas a few hundred years after his death.
Wheeler also mentions that another famous Nicholas, St. Nicholas of Sion is reported to have taken his name from the original Nicholas. Nicholas of Sion’s biography also makes mention that he traveled to Myra to see a martyrium or structure dedicated to the original Nicholas.
Legends Of Nicholas
Nicholas Smacks Arius — Medieval Greek Orthodox Icon of the Council of Nicaea [Public Domain]
One of the legends that gets some attention and many memes is that Nicholas slapped a heretic at the Council of Nicaea. According to the story, Arius a bishop from Egypt, was preaching a different version of the trinity. Arius believed that God and Jesus were not equal.
The whole purpose of the council was to address this issue. During the council Arius aggressively defended his point in long speeches. As Nicholas sat and listened, he became enraged. He eventually walked across the room, striking Arius in the face. Nicholas would be imprisoned during the council, but eventually released due to holy intercession.
This story likely isn’t valid. According to the blogger and author Roger Pearse, this story didn’t appear until the Middle Ages. Also, the story originally involved a slap, then turned into a punch. Furthermore, Arius likely wasn’t at the council. The original story indicates it was a disciple of Arius that was slapped.
Another legend has Nicholas saving three daughters of a poor man from going into a life of prostitution. In order to marry in these times, a dowry would have to be presented to a potential suitor. Without the money, the options would be limited for survival.
The Dowry For The Three Virgins — Gentile da Fabriano (1425) Via Wikipedia Creative Commons
Nicholas would hear of their plight. On 3 consecutive nights, he would sneak by the house and toss pouches with coins into their window. Eventually the father would find it was Nicholas. The bishop would make the happy parent promise not to tell anyone about the kind act. Another version has Nicholas putting the coins in the girls’ stockings as they hung them out to dry.
Saint Nicholas Resurrecting Butchered Children — Grandes Heures of Anne of Brittany 1503–1508
The most bizarre legend has St. Nick tracking down missing children. In this story from the Middle Ages, Nicholas is told that three local children have gone missing. The bishop goes on a search for the children and has a strange feeling when he sees a local innkeeper / butcher.
The butcher had killed the children and pickled them in a barrel, planning to sell it as ham. The legend has St. Nicholas reassembling the children and resurrecting them. That whole story makes our version of Santa Claus a bit tamer doesn’t it?
The Transformation Of Nicholas
Our modern St. Nick is iconic. It’s hard not to see that red suit in your mind when you think of that name. However, evidence shows there was a real Nicholas — much different than the figure we see today. The original Nicholas devoted his entire life to his church and community. The devotion ran so deep, he was willing to be imprisoned and tortured. The first Nicholas is a story of bravery and faith.
As with many things in our consumer driven world, the story transformed into something less meaningful: elves, reindeer, and presents. So, the next time you see Santa Claus, remember there was a real man named Nicholas. His magical ability was his willingness to suffer for and serve his community.