Looking back on my boyhood, I’m aware that December 6—St. Nicholas Day—functioned like a pressure relief valve for me. With anticipation building in the weeks preceding Christmas Eve, the night I would finally learn if the Kenner Girder & Panel set and GI Joe paraphernalia that I longed for were buried in the mound of gift-wrapped boxes under the tree, St. Nicholas Day helped make the long wait for December 24 more tolerable. Mom would select two of the smaller items on my Christmas wish list and give them to me on St. Nick’s Day and they would tide me over until the main event on the night before Christmas.
I didn’t know much about St. Nicholas then, but I sensed that he and Santa Claus were somehow related. Maybe they were cousins. But because I grew up in a Missouri Synod Lutheran church, I didn’t dare ask my pastor or Sunday School teachers, “Who was St. Nicholas?” Deep down, I worried that someone might tell my mom to stop giving me toys on St. Nicholas Day because Lutherans don’t believe in saints. I didn’t know at the time just how much my mom’s gifting practice ran afoul of Martin Luther’s desire to shift emphasis in the 16th century away from St. Nicholas to the Christkind (photo 1, above), German for “Christ child.” The angelic Christkind, who brings gifts on Christmas Eve and gives its name to the popular Christkindlemarkts in Europe (photo 2), today bears little resemblance to the baby Jesus lying in a manger. And so I think it’s a shame that the Protestant Reformation prevented me from getting to know St. Nicholas better. Because he personifies the old adage that it is better to give than to receive, Nicholas probably would have made a good role model for an acquisitive American kid like me.
The Saint in History and Legend We know for sure that Nicholas was a bishop (photo 3) in fourth century Myra, a Roman town in Lycia, now part of Turkey. Some reports place him at the great church Council of Nicaea in 325, CE but the evidence of his attendance is inconclusive. Tradition has it that Nicholas died on December 6, 343, thirty years after the Edict of Milan legalized Christianity. We also know that Italian sailors stole his bones in 1087 and moved them from Myra to Bari, on Italy’s Adriatic coast, where they now lie in the crypt of a basilica named for the saint. Aside from that, we don’t know much about his factual life story. According to Prof. Adam English, author of the Saint who would be Santa, Nicholas left us nothing in writing; no theological statements, no poems, no sermons, and no contemporary biographies.
What we have are stories—lots of stories—through which we catch a faint glimpse of a man whose personal qualities and selfless actions captured the imagination of the common folk and inspired many enduring legends about his regard for youngsters and the downtrodden.
Three Bags of Gold The most compelling story about Nicholas, which likely led to his designation as the patron saint of children, involves three girls whose family had fallen on hard times. In one version of the story, Nicholas receives a large inheritance from his parents whose death left him orphaned as a boy. Later, as a young man, he learned that a destitute nobleman planned to sell his daughters into slavery or prostitution, as was the accepted custom at the time. The news pained Nicholas and prompted him to anonymously donate three bags of gold coins that each girl could use as a dowry. A sculpted scene at Chartres Cathedral shows Nicholas reaching through a hole in a wall to drop a bag of coins on the floor as the three distraught girls stand over their father who lies in bed (photo 4). A panel in one of the two St. Nicholas windows at Chartres depicts the saint dropping three large coins through the window as the daughters and father lie together in a large bed (photo 5).
The anonymous gifts, delivered on three successive nights, delighted the girls because it meant they could escape a dreadful fate. But their curious and grateful father wanted to learn the identity of the donor. So he stayed up on the third night to wait for the mystery man. Jacobus de Voragine’s Golden Legend describes the encounter. The father shouted, “Stop! Don’t sneak away! I want to see you!” Nicholas bolted. The man gave chase and when he caught up to Nicholas, “fell to the ground and tried to kiss his feet, but Nicholas stopped him, and made him promise never to reveal his secret until after [Nicholas’] death (photo 6).” Evidently, Nicholas was both generous and humble, and presumably the father made good on his promise.
Why is this legend so significant? In an interview with Read the Spirit magazine [http://www.stnicholascenter.org/pages/adam-english/], Adam English explained, “here was a story about Nicholas anonymously giving something to these three poor girls—girls who no one else in that era would have cared about. He is truly taking the biblical command to look out for ‘the least among you’ to heart in a serious way. He does something that is purely generous and purely good—for people who weren’t the concern of society in that era—and he does it without any hope of reward.”
The story of Nicholas’ unexpected gift spread far and wide and contributed to his fame from Byzantium to western Europe and eventually beyond. The Oxford Dictionary of Saints reports that more than 500 churches in Britain alone are dedicated to St. Nicholas. Moreover, the largest annual religious pilgrimage in Russia, with 90,000 people reportedly joining the throng in 2015, follows a traditional route to the town of Velikoretsky to commemorate a peasant’s discovery in 1383 of a miraculous icon with a traditional image of St. Nicholas and eight scenes of events in his life (photo 7).
Saving the Children A second legend involving children in dire straits, which likely expresses a dark medieval fear more than it testifies to Nicholas’ innate kindness, presents the saint as the savior of three boys who had the great misfortune of crossing paths with a murderous butcher. The butcher and his wife hack the boys to death and place them in a large vat with an eye toward selling their remains as pickled meat. Nicholas intervenes and brings the boys back to life. The murder and resurrection scenes are depicted in thirteenth century stained glass panels in Chartres Cathedral (photos 8 and 9).
Remarkably, this gruesome tale continued to provide subject matter for artists into modern times. You will sometimes see three boys (or adolescents) standing in a big barrel, a common attribute for St. Nicholas. A late nineteenth century window designed by the English firm of Lavers and Westlake (photo 10) at Milwaukee’s All Saints Episcopal Cathedral (photo 11) offers an example of the iconography.
A final story in this overview of how sculptors and glaziers portrayed St. Nicholas’ legends in stone and glass is the subject of yet another colorful 13th century window at Chartres Cathedral. The story apparently combines two aspects of Nicholas’ sainthood, as the patron of children and sailors. Legend has it that a boy fell from a boat into the sea. His parents called on Nicholas for help and, though the details of the rescue are vague, the saint miraculously saved him. The artist in Chartres’ workshop depicted the boy sinking as a blue demon with a grappling hook tries to snag him (photos 12 and 13, the panel at 9 o’clock in the quatrefoil). The boy’s worried parents sit in the boat, praying, as two oarsmen look on. The next scene in the sequence shows the mother, father and boy with St. Nicholas, wearing bishop’s vestments, standing before Nicholas’ cathedra or bishop’s throne (see photo 13; the panel at 3 o’clock in the quatrefoil).
12. Drowning Boy, St. Nicholas Window, Chartres Cathedral, France
From Saint to Santa After the Protestant Reformation, Nicholas drifted into the background of Advent and Christmas celebrations in most of Europe. Nevertheless, Dutch and Flemish-speaking groups kept alive the tradition of gift-giving on St. Nicholas Day eve and brought Sinterklaas, an elderly, bearded, adaptation of St. Nicholas, with them to New Amsterdam (renamed New York by the English in 1684). More than a century later, a Revolutionary War veteran named John Pintard promoted St. Nicholas as a patron saint for New York City. Then in 1809, Washington Irving published a satirical history of New York in which he mentions a jolly St. Nicholas character coming down chimneys to deliver gifts. In 1823, a poem titled “A Visit from St. Nicholas” attributed to Clement Clark Moore, appeared in the Troy, New York newspaper. It “twas the night before Christmas…” and the rest, as they say, is Santa Claus history. There were illustrations of Santa on magazine covers and eventually Santa ads in the 1930’s for Coca Cola. For more on the story about St. Nicholas and the origins of Santa Claus and about the Velikoretsky pilgrimage, visit the St. Nicholas Center’s informative website [https://www.stnicholascenter.org/].
A Saintly Exemplar One of the great ironies in Nicholas’ evolution from a saintly cleric to a rotund, red and white clad cultural icon who spends most of the year at the North Pole (now reportedly with an icy swimming hole in the vicinity), is that the German name for the character who supplanted him, Christkindl, has morphed in English to become “Kris Kringle,” a nickname for Santa Claus. It’s hard to keep a good man like Nicholas down! And why should we when the man took to heart Jesus’ call in Matthew’s gospel to treat “the least of these my brethren” with dignity? St. Nicholas of Myra, legendary wonder worker and patron saint of children, personifies humane qualities that are no less pertinent—or essential—today than they were 1,673 years ago on the day he died.
Copyright 2016 by Michael Klug, firstname.lastname@example.org, 12/5/2016.