Note: Adapted from a post on December 6, 2010.
When our children were young, they always found stockings filled on December 2, St. Nicholas Day. It was a custom in my wife’s Polish family which originated in Prussia where the peasantry was Slavic and the aristocrats German. I’m told that Poles from southern parts of the country are mystified by this.
Today is St. Nicholas Day. A traditional Catholic Feast Day in the West, it celebrates the day Nikolaos of Myra, the Greek Bishop of Myra in Asia Minor died in 346. He is one of the most important Saints in the Orthodox tradition as well and is venerated in Greece and especially in Russia where is the national patron. The bishop was considered a vigorous defender of what became orthodox belief after the Council of Nicaea in 325. As legend has it, Nicholas actually slapped the Presbyter Arius, the leader of a minority who held a crypto-unitarian theology.
Despite this, Nicholas is best remembered in the west for his kindness to children and his gifts of alms to the poor.
The major miracle attributed to him, told in many variations, is that he discovered the murder of three children by a butcher who was curing their bodies in a barrel to sell as ham. Nicholas discovered the ruse, had the villain arrested and then resurrected the innocent children.
Nicholas came from a very wealthy family. Orphaned at an early age, he was raised by an uncle, also named Nicholas who was Bishop of Patara who raised the boy for the priesthood. Later the very devout young man began discretely using his wealth to make gifts to the poor. He supposedly did so anonymously, often by throwing purses of coins over garden walls or through open windows in the dead of night.
The most famous story, also told with many variations, is that he took pity on a poor man with three daughters who could not marry because they had no dowry. For three nights running, or once a year for three years, or once each girl reached marriageable age depending on the version being told, Nicholas tossed a customary purse of gold into the man’s home. The third time the man sought to hide himself so that he could thank his benefactor. Seeing this, Nicholas supposedly tossed the final bag down the chimney, where it dropped into the stocking of the youngest girl who had hung it to dry. This is the origin of gifts in shoes or stockings associated with Nicholas in later folk lore.
In commemoration of this story, most icons of St. Nicholas show him with three purses tied to his belt, which were often stylized into three golden balls. In the Netherlands, where so much of the gift giving tradition associated with him became popularized, the three golden balls became associated with oranges, which the Saint would bring with him on his annual visits from Spain. This part of the legend is associated with the long rule of the Netherlands by the Spanish Hapsburg dynasty.
In an even stranger twist, the three balls morphed into the three balls traditional emblematic of pawn brokers. St. Nicholas is the patron of these petty money lenders, supposedly because they, like him, are the last resort of the poor. Nicholas is also venerated as the patron of sailors, children, scholars, and thieves as well Russia and several other nations.
Myra was overtaken by the Seljuk Turks early in the reign of the Byzantine Emperor Alexius I Comnenus around 1085. To save them from the Islamic invaders sailors from Bari, an important port on the Adriatic coast of southern Italy, seized the relics of Saint Nicholas, over the objections of the monks caring for them at the Cathedral in Myra. They arrived on May 9, 1087, and a new tomb was built for the intact body of the Saint. Bari became a pilgrimage site and the relocated Bishop is often called St. Nicholas of Bari in the west.
About this time, iconography in the Orthodox and Catholic traditions began to divide. In the east he his generally shown bare headed and bald in rich golden vestments. In the west he is usually portrayed in a red bishop’s miter and red cloak, symbolic of his office.
Much of the change to a folkloric figure took place in the Netherlands and spread across Northern Europe, where, particularly in eastern Germany, it was blended with even older pagan traditions associated with the worship of Odin.
As the Dutch story evolved, St. Nicholas would arrive every year by ship from Spain about two weeks before his feast day. With the help of a small, dark skinned helper named Zwarte Piet, Black Peter, he would check on the behavior of children. Carrying a pack of goodies on his white horse, St. Nicholas would travel from town to town on the eve of his feast day and leave gifts in the wooden shoes of poor children. This story spread over much of northern Europe and was adapted to local customs. The names of St. Nicholas and his helper also changed from place to place. In Dutch he was called Sinterklass.
St. Nicholas Day was a separate tradition from Christmas. But because it fell early in the Advent season, it was probably inevitable that the celebrations and the Saint would become intertwined. Scholars are unsure of exactly when St. Nicholas added Christmas to his rounds of gift giving, but most believe it did not take hold until the early years of the 19th Century in America.
The Dutch settlers of New Amsterdam undoubtedly brought the tradition of St. Nicholas Day with them to the New World. By the post Revolutionary era it had passed on to English residents of the New York. Washington Irving, who preserved the old Dutch folk tales—and made more than a few up himself—noted the custom at some point prior to the 1820’s, St. Nicholas had shifted his gift giving to Christmas in areas of the Hudson Valley.
In 1823 a newspaper in Troy, New York published an anonymous poem titled A Visit from St. Nicholas that was later attributed to Clement Clark Moore. Within years it was being re-printed annually in newspapers across the United States. In the poem, Moore invented many of the “traditions” associated with St. Nicholas’s visit on Christmas Eve, including his reindeer and sleigh transport and a physical description of “the jolly old elf” that strips him of his Bishop’s regalia, dresses him in fur, and transforms him from a tall, regal figure to a rotund, bearded little man.
This new character was called Santa Claus, derived from the Dutch Sinterklass regionally, but remained better known as St. Nicholas through most of the following century. Thomas Nast’s mid-century cartoon helped define his appearance, including the fur trimmed cap instead of the miter, top hat, or cowl depicted in earlier illustrations. There was not much agreement on the color of his outfit, which was often pictured as brown fur trimmed in ermine or as green or blue, until the spread of cheep popular color lithography in which artists used the bishop’s red of Europe because it showed up so brilliantly.
The name Santa Claus did not really begin to overtake St. Nicholas nationally until the New York Sun published its famous editorial Yes, Virginia, There is a Santa Claus in 1897. It, too, “went viral” and became an annual event in papers across the country. In 1902 L. Frank Baum, the creator of the Wizard of Oz published a now largely forgotten book, The Life and Adventures of Santa Claus, which was so popular at the time that it virtually completed the metamorphosis of St. Nicholas to Santa Claus.
The physical image of Santa was refined by the illustrators of popular magazine covers in the early decades of the 20th Century, including many by Norman Rockwell. The fully definitive modern Santa Claus was created by artist Haddon Sundblom for Coca Cola advertising that ran from 1931 to 1964.
Along the way Santa Claus picked up many accouterments that had nothing in common with the Bishop of Myra. The most obvious of these is Mrs. Claus. Although there were some early passing references to a spouse for the gift giver as early as the 1850s, she first got wide exposure in a poem by Katherine Lee Bates, best known as the writer of America the Beautiful. In Goody Santa Claus on a Sleigh Ride, she is an uncompromising feminist who show’s Santa what she can do. She really took off as a separate character in stories and films from the 1950’s on, where she is stripped of Bates’s feminism and is pictured as an adoring, chubby helpmate to her husband.
The power of American film, music, and television has brought Santa Claus to every corner of the globe. Even in countries with strong St. Nicholas traditions, he has taken on the characteristics of the American Santa. He also appears in countries with no religious celebration of Christmas and is popular in Japan and Korea. Under the Soviets, the Russians transformed their patron saint into Father Winter, as Santa Claus clone who visits on New Year’s Eve.
Symbolic of the eclipse of St. Nicholas by Santa Claus is the fate of the statue of St. Nicholas in the town of Demre, Turkey, near the site of historic Myra. In order to facilitate tourism the now Muslim town commissioned a statue of St. Nicholas to be placed in the town square by a Russian Iconographer. The Russian government made it a gift to the city and it was dedicated in 2000. After just a few years, however, the local Mayor discovered that tourists were disappointed. They had not come to venerate a Saint, but visit the home of Santa Claus. So the mayor had the original statue removed and replaced by a plastic Santa in a red suit—a Santa modeled after Haddon Sundblom’s Coca Cola creation.