Editor's Note: As readers probably already know, TheBlaze Magazine contains exclusive content not found anywhere else—online or in print. The magazine’s stories, research and special reports are reserved for subscribers to the print edition (and, yes, there is a digital version of the magazine that works on your mobile devices, too), which is created by the same team that brings you TheBlaze.com.
But we're in the Christmas spirit and would like to share with you a special feature from the December issue. For his piece, "The Real St. Nick," our Faith editor, Billy Hallowell, did a little digging and found out all about the real-life story of the man who came to represent giving and kindness.
Merry Christmas from your friends at TheBlaze Magazine.
Most Americans know Santa Claus as the jolly old man who delivers gifts on a sleigh, donning ruby-red overalls and a snow-white beard. While some may know that this mythical character is based on Nikolaos of Myra, a real-life religious figure and Catholic saint, most likely don’t know much about his background.
As is often the case, some of the attributes that belong to the fictional description of Santa were also inherent in and central to the character of the real-life St. Nick. Of course, the bishop, who lived from 270 until 343, did not own reindeer, and he certainly refrained from hopping roof-to-roof, sliding down chimneys in an effort to deliver gifts to children. That said, Nikolaos’ generous spirit was very real—a sentiment that carried over into the mythical tradition.
TheBlaze recently spoke with Dr. Adam C. English, associate professor of theology and philosophy at Campbell University, to learn more about the phenomenon that is St. Nick. The educator recently released “The Saint Who Would Be Santa Claus,” a book that tells “the true life and trials of Nikolaos of Myra.” After stumbling upon St. Nick’s tomb in Bari, Italy, while working on a study-abroad trip, English found a library filled with information about the historical figure. Naturally, he dug in and, three years later, released a book about the man who captivates children’s imaginations. According to the professor, the literary work may be among the most researched on the subject.
“Often times we get the impression that Santa Claus is based on a vaguely historical person,” English said, going on to paint a divergent picture. “There is all of this documentation and evidence and material that is rich and really has not been explored much.”
While the reality has certainly informed the magical world that the mythical Santa resides in, English notes that the vision of the jolly gift-deliverer that most Americans have is an invention that was sculpted right here in the U.S. In fact, it was in the 1800s that the revival of Dutch heritage in New York gave way to Santa Claus as we view him today.
The New York Historical Society provides a similar recap of the history, noting that Santa really didn’t arrive on the scene until Clement Clarke Moore penned the poem “A Visit From St. Nicholas” (known today as “’Twas the Night Before Christmas”) in 1823. After that, author Washington Irving wrote “Knickerbocker’s History of New York,” which added to the description, and artist Thomas Nast began drawing Santa following the Civil War’s conclusion. These individuals helped to shape the current image that Americans have of the Christmas figure (the U.S. version is based on the Dutch character of Sinterklaas).
“Stabilization of this picture of this man dressed in red fur [who was] jolly and pudgy [soon came],” English told TheBlaze. “It really had to do with the evolution of American culture. The Dutch wanted to connect with something nostalgic and European.”
English went on to note some of the primary differences between the American celebration of Santa Claus and the image and observance of the character in European countries. While, in the U.S., he comes to bring children their gifts on Christmas Eve, other nations celebrate on the evening of December 5, which is, coincidentally St. Nikolaos Eve.
“He will come in and visit with the children and leave gifts for them,” English explained. “Sometimes kids will leave shoes out and Saint Nick will leave simple gifts—chocolate gifts and coins.”
And forget about the sleigh and reindeer. In many European countries, St. Nick rides on a white horse or a donkey and, rather than sporting an Americanized outfit, Santa is dressed in a bishop’s mitre hat and robe. In Austria, the tradition is even more divergent, as he travels with an evil sidekick who carries “naughty” kids away in a sack. His name? Krampus.
SANTA THE POLITICIAN?
The real Nikolaos, of course, didn’t have an evil sidekick, nor did he spend the majority of his year supervising gift-making elves in the North Pole. He was the head bishop of the church at Myra on what is, today, Turkey’s southern coast during a time of intense persecution. In addition to this responsibility, Nikolaos had a multitude of community roles.
“What was most startling about him is to learn that, in addition to being a gift giver, he was a politician, a businessman, a patron, a protector of the people, a judge, a lawyer and a social activist,” he explained. “If he were alive today, he would be wearing a business suit and running for office.”
Truly a story that would pluck at the heartstrings of most fiscal conservatives, St. Nick, who resided in modern-day Turkey, once went to Constantinople and petitioned for lower taxes for residents of his town.
“He was truly involved in the social affairs of his time—working for lower taxes, working for grain for his people,” English continued. “[At another point he got] involved in some legal disputes, saving some men from beheading who had been falsely accused.”
These stories and attributes, of course, are very different from the actions taken by the traditional Santa Claus that Americans are accustomed to. While they paint Nikolaos as a kind and generous man, some may still wonder where the gift-giving element is rooted. One of the stories that English tells in his book, though, perfectly illustrates why the saint has become the coveted face of giving and kindness.
When Nikolaos was in his younger years, before having become a bishop, he heard about three daughters whose father had lost everything. After gaining an inheritance, he decided to help the young girls, knowing that, if no one helped, they could face a life of destitution or prostitution. But rather than approaching them directly, he walked by their window and anonymously tossed a bag of gold inside. He purportedly did this three times, offering one mini-tote of gold for each young woman.
English said that this story is significant, seeing as most Christians of that time had their faith noticed due to enormous adversity and sometimes even martyrdom due to their beliefs. However, Nikolaos became known for his generous and kind nature, a story that truly sets itself apart from the others.
“It sticks with people—this is something anyone can do,” the professor said of the giving nature displayed by St. Nick. “Even by the early 1100s there are groups of nuns in France who are making and wrapping little gifts for children and leaving them with Saint Nikolaos’ name [on them].”
AN EXAMPLE FOR ALL
As for contemporary society, English claims that we can all be inspired by the true story of St. Nick’s life. Whether it’s paying someone’s electric bill anonymously or helping a person in need secure some groceries—the options for assisting the downtrodden and embracing Nikolaos’ worldview are limitless.
The real-life Santa Claus may have lived an extraordinary life, but in many ways, he was relatable. He was the common-man’s saint—a man who had a fascinating life, but who died a natural death. An individual who wasn’t known because he was a scholar, a martyr or a celebrity, he is revered for nothing more than the actions he took in his own life.
English, who has deep faith in the general sentiment of each of the stories he encountered about St. Nick, did tell TheBlaze that Nikolaos left behind no writings of his own. Due to his common nature, none of his contemporaries mentioned him by name either. As a historian, the professor said that this is troubling, specifically when it comes to taking the stories seriously. However, he maintained that, due to his common nature, there was no reason his compatriots would have written about him.
“The first mentions of [St. Nick] are archeological mentions. A church dedicated to him,” he explained. “He’s by far the most popular non-biblical saint of the Middle Ages. I feel very confident about the kernel of the story.”
It is those tidbits of information that show such profound internal character. It’s no wonder that the saint’s actions led to a mythical tale of giving and kindness—one that is truly both timeless and inspirational.