Many people associate Santa Claus with the jolly, fluffy-bearded plump old man in a red and white suit that travels in a sleight pulled by flying reindeer that help him deliver Christmas presents to children across the globe.
But little is know about the real man behind what recently became the icon of wintertime consumerism: Saint Nicholas.
Who was Saint Nicholas?
Nicholas was a Christian saint that lived in the fourth century A.D. in Myra, an ancient Greek town in what is now the Antalya Province, in modern Turkey. He was a righteous man ever since his birth, and Christian tradition has it that as a small child he refused to eat milk from his mother’s breast on Wednesdays and Fridays, which were consecrated as days of fast for Christians.
He is a beloved saint for his righteousness – he saved from execution three officers that were wrongfully accused, without fear that he might be as well prosecuted or provoke the ire of the leaders of his time in a moment when Christians had only recently escaped Roman persecutions.
He is also known for his good deeds and as a wonder worker who can help sailors safely travel at sea, young girls get married, students achieve expertise in their specialization and pass their exams.
Saint Nicholas, however, is best known for his generous heart and charity – he miraculously fed an entire town during famine when he was Bishop of Myra. According to tradition, an Italian merchant, who had a ship loaded with grain that he had planned to sell to his trade partners in Egypt, saw one night Saint Nicholas in his dream asking him to sell the grain in famine-stricken Myra for a payment of three gold coins. When the merchant woke up he found the three coins in his hand.
But the saint is best known for saving three young girls, who were too poor to get married, from prostitution. According to tradition, the girls’s father, who had been once a wealthy man but suddenly lost his fortune, had plans to turn his daughters into prostitutes to escape poverty since he had no money to feed them or give them a dowry.
Saint Nicholas learned about those plans and rushed to help, but because he well knew the teaching of Jesus Christ that good deeds should not be made in public to draw people’s admiration (otherwise, “you will have no reward from your Father in heaven,” Matthew 6:1) he thought about a different approach.
In the middle of the night, he sneaked into the poor man’s backyard and tossed through an open window three bags full of gold coins for the girls, which landed in their shoes. This is how the man was able to marry his daughters, and the girls escaped a life of moral corruption.
From Saint Nicholas to Santa Claus (in short)
Few people know that Saint Nicholas and Santa Claus are basically one and the same person. In countries with a long Christian tradition like the Eastern Orthodox Church, people remember him twice (on Dec. 6, the saint’s feast day and Dec. 25 on Christmas day), but some of them often do not realize that Santa Claus is actually their beloved saint with a recent commercial twist.
The moniker ‘Santa Claus’ is more recent and originates in the city of New York. In late 18th century, a NYC newspaper wrote about Dutch immigrants’s Dec. 6 tradition to celebrate ‘Sinter Klaas,’ an abbreviated term for ‘Sint Nikolaas’ or ‘Saint Nicholas’ in Dutch.
A few decades later, Clement Clarke Moore, an author and seminary professor in New York City, wrote a poem about St. Nicholas which can be credited for the modern imagery of Santa Claus as a ‘jolly old elf’ with eight flying reindeer that help him reach people’s rooftops to ascend chimneys and deliver presents to well-behaved children.
In 1881, another New Yorker, Thomas Nast, who was a famous political cartoonist at Harper’s Weekly at that time, gave ‘Santa Claus’ the red and white suit, a wife (although Saint Nicholas was never married since he was a monk), elves, and a workshop at North Pole (despite the saint historically living in Myra, which was located at a warm latitude and most probably never saw snow).
Saint Nicholas’s Legacy
Despite the recent additions, some tiny bits of Saint Nicholas’s story survived to our days: he is a kindhearted old man that brings joy to children by secretly filling their shoes or stockings with presents, fruits and, in some parts of the world, chocolate gold coins (in remembrance of his gift for the three young maids).
But in the meantime, the spirit of the saint’s virtuous life was somehow lost, since few people nowadays are also generous to the ones in need, not only to their loved ones during Christmas time. And even fewer pass onto their children the true story of Saint Nicholas or take them to church on Christmas day, which is the place where the generous saint often drew inspiration for his good deeds.
Image Source: Wikimedia , Wikipedia, Wikimedia, and Pixabay
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