The Origins of Santa Claus

Santa Claus, or more properly Saint Nicolas of Myra is one of many early church saints whose legend is better known than any historical facts. As many other saints revered in the Catholic Church, he was moved around in the calendar during the reformation instigated by Martin Luther. The reformers ditched the saints' days and he therefore started to appear on Christmas or New Year instead of December 6. As an early church saint, his devotional day is also strongly rooted in the Orthodox churches of Eastern Europe.

Historically, there isn't a lot that is known about Saint Nicolas. Convention places him as being Bishop of Myra in Turkey at the beginning of the fourth century. But his predecessor and uncle went by the name of Nicolas, too, and might also be considered a candidate. It is therefore possible that the stories attached to either or both of them have been amalgamated and mashed into one. A namesake in the sixth century who was Abbot of the cloister of Zion near Myra and later became Bishop of Pinara (which in turn is named as the birthplace of Saint Nicolas) muddies the water further. His story might have got mixed up with the other two as well.

Saint Nicolas is said to have attended the council of Nicaea (today called Iznik in Turkey), but there is no historical evidence for that. Where historical facts are short, early historians were good at inventing an interesting life story (just in case you thought fiction writing was a prerogative of our time). These putative biographies were called vita by the church scholars who invented them. 

The authors claimed that Saint Nicolas gave away an inherited fortune; historically, such stories can be better attributed to the Bishops Ambrose of Milan and Basil of Caesarea while the source of the fortune for any the three Nicolas remains a mystery. He is said of having paid the dowry for three daughters of a poor Christian by throwing money through their window during the night; in pictures, he therefore is often represented with three golden balls as an attribute. During a famine, he stopped corn transports on their way to Constantinople in the harbor of Myra. He made them unload half their goods, but the ships arrived fully loaded in Constantinople. He is often depicted with three loafs of bread for this reason.

Legend has him saving three citizens from imperial execution, as well as three imperial guards from the same fate. He also resurrected three scholars after they were butchered. All these figure of holy threes give you a true indication of how well founded these stories are. He went head to head with the Greek goddess Artemis (winning obviously) and he commonly saved vessels at sea from the trouble they got themselves into. This is all hard science, don't you agree?

With such impeccable credentials on record, it is small wonder he became the patron saint of numerous countries, cities, and organisations. Russia, Croatia, and Serbia all claim him as their own. Merchant cities founded during the late Middle Ages all grew around churches dedicated to him. He was chosen by and is now responsible for merchants and butchers, sailors, students and children. He is the patron saint of the city of Fribourg in Switzerland, where the first Saturday in December is dedicated to him with a festival, a market, and a procession through the historical city center.

As usual, the Western and the Eastern churches disagree slightly on the correct date for the feast day, the Catholic West having it on the 6th of December, whereas the Orthodox East has the 19th of December by dint of using the Julian calendar. Martin Luther’s Protestants officially abolished all saints’ days, and Saint Nicolas’ traditional day with its traditions and customs were moved to Christmas in some regions and to New Year in others. No one was prepared to lose their favorite saint just because of church politics. 

An exception to all this is the port city of Bari in Italy which has the saints day on the 19th of May. That day, the relics of the saint arrived at their city after having been stolen from their resting place in Myra in 1087. In the Vatican’s official jargon that is called being brought to security. Americans know how that works.

Saint Nicolas is always depicted in full Bishops dress, sometimes in white and gold, but mostly in red and white. His worship was promoted in the 10th century by Empress Theophanu, Princess of Byzantium and wife of Emperor Otto II of the Holy Roman Empire. She brought her favorite saint with her and propagated his worship all over the empire. Later, St. Nicolas in his red garb became a world traveler, and on his way from Europe to the American continent he took up a cheap exchange offer and traded his ass for some flying reindeer. As happens with all cheap offers, one of the reindeer has a permanent technical defect and is a typical alcoholic. He now is called Santa Claus and is regularly misused by Coca Cola and many others.

Further reading