What do pickled children, whipping and kidnapping have to do with Christmas? We all recognise the jolly old white man with red cheeks and a red fur suit – but who was this man and where did our beloved Santa come from?
St Nicholas was an early Greek Christian bishop, born 280 years after Christ. He became bishop of Myra, a small Roman town in modern Turkey.
Nicholas died on 6 December of some unknown year in the mid-fourth century. He was associated with many miracles, and patron of so many groups, from sailors to entire nations, that reverence for him continues to this day independent of his Santa Claus connection.
It was around 1200 that he became known as a patron of children and magical gift bringer. There are two stories that this may be because of.
In one story, three young girls were saved from a life of prostitution when Nicholas secretly gave three bags of gold to their poor father to be used as dowries so that they could be married. It is said that Nicholas threw the gold through the window and it landed in some stockings that, having been washed, were hung up to dry by the fire.
The other story you may not want to share with your children or grandchildren… Nicholas is said to have entered an inn whose keeper had just murdered three boys and pickled their dismembered bodies in basement barrels. Nicholas sensed the crime and resurrected the victims.
For several hundred years, from around 1200 to 1500, St. Nicholas was the considered the bringer of gifts on his day, 6 December. After the Protestant Reformation, the date was moved to Christmas Day and baby Jesus said to bring the gifts. Christ the child was often given a scary helper to carry the presents and to threaten children that had not been good with whippings or kidnappings! These shady characters included Ru-klaus (Rough Nicholas), Aschenklas (Ashy Nicholas), and Pelznickel (Furry Nicholas).
The Netherlands, however, held tight to the belief of St. Nicholas as a gift bringer and they took “Sinterklaas” with them to the new world, America. During the early decades of the 19th century, a series of poets and writers revived this idea of St Nicholas and strove to make Christmas a family celebration.
His eyes-how they twinkled! His dimples how merry! His cheeks were like roses, his nose like a cherry!
In 1822, Clement Clarke Moore wrote The Night Before Christmas and, to this day, the plump, jolly old elf rides a sleigh driven by eight reindeer. The grandfatherly face of this Santa was largely created by political cartoonist, Thomas Nast.
Once firmly established, the image of North America’s Santa then migrated back to Europe, replacing the scary gift bringers and adopting local names like Père Noël and Father Christmas.
And of course, in 1951, the Coca-Cola Christmas advertising campaign gave him his red suit we all know so well.
Did you know?
St Nicholas is buried Bari, Italy. His remains were exhumed half a century ago when the Vatican granted an anthropologist permission to examine them. The saint’s skull and bones were documented with x-ray photos and thousands of detailed measurements. Want to know what the real Santa Claus looks like…?