How St. Nicholas Became Santa

Russian Orthodox Icon

When I was a small child growing up in England we didn’t have Santa Claus and we didn’t hang up stockings or set out cookies on Christmas Eve. Instead, following the tradition of my mother’s Flemish homeland, my sister and I put a pair of wooden clogs by the fireside with carrots in them for St. Nicholas’s donkey. In later years as my mother absorbed English culture we abandoned St. Nicholas in favor of the very English Father Christmas. Our celebrations were complete with colorful paper streamers strung across the living room, Christmas crackers with their silly hats and even sillier jokes, plum pudding, and a fruit cake smothered in marzipan and rock hard white icing decorated with a little fir tree, a robin, and a reindeer. Christmas day was the only day of the year when there was any alcohol in the house. My father would ceremonially produce a single bottle of white wine, always Entre-Deux-Mers. Once I was a teenager I was allowed a small glass. I remember one year my mother and I got a little tipsy finishing the bottle as we dried the dishes.

When I moved to America and had children of my own, just like my mother I hung on to some of my homeland’s traditions and adopted new American ones. Father Christmas became Santa Claus, a name that is an obvious corruption of St. Nicholas (from the German Nikolaus). How the European tradition of St. Nicholas developed and came to America and why England favors Father Christmas is a fascinating history going back to the early years of Christianity in the Roman Empire. Perhaps most surprising is that originally St. Nicholas had absolutely nothing to do with Christmas. But in his life and the legends that grew up about him we can see the origins of our modern Christmas celebration. For instance candy canes were originally a representation of a bishop’s crozier.

Nicholas was born in 270 to noble Christian parents in Patara, a Greek city on the Mediterranean in what is now Turkey. His parents died in an epidemic when he was a boy and he inherited their considerable wealth. But instead of leading a life of luxury he took seriously the gospel teaching to “sell your possessions and give to the poor.” He became known for his generosity, especially to children. While still a young man he was appointed Bishop of the nearby city of Myra. Around this time the Roman Emperor Diocletian began a brutal persecution of Christians. Nicholas was exiled, imprisoned, and probably tortured. When Emperor Constantine, who would later himself convert to Christianity, came to power he put an end to the persecution and Nicholas was released. He returned to Myra resuming his duties as bishop and his charitable works. In 325 he attended the Council of Nicaea, called by Constantine to stamp out the Arian heresy. Nicholas was apparently so outraged by the heresy that he jumped out of his seat and slapped Arius across the face. But when he died in 343 it was not his part in this historically important Council that he was remembered for, it was for his dedication to the people and his generosity to those in need.

Stories of miracles began to spread almost as soon as Nicholas was buried in the cathedral church of Myra. It was said that a miraculous liquid smelling like rose water flowed from his tomb. Known as manna, the liquid was collected by the faithful and was said to cure the sick. This was a time when saints were declared by popular acclamation, not by a lengthy bureaucratic procedure. Nor did miracles have to be proven. Nicholas of Myra became St. Nicholas the Wonderworker and devotion to him spread throughout the Roman Empire. When the empire split into east and west, Byzantium and Rome, and Christianity split into Orthodox and Roman, St. Nicholas continued to be revered in both traditions. Many of the early images we have of Nicholas are icons in the Byzantine style.

St. Nicholas’s tomb in Bari, Italy

Of course a saint’s bones are rarely left to rest in peace. In 1087, during the Crusades, sailors carried St. Nicholas’s bones to Bari in Italy to save them from the Infidel. Here they were reinterred in the Basilica di San Nicola which became a popular site of pilgrimage. The miracle of the manna continued in Bari. To this day it still flows from the tomb and can be ordered from the church. Skeptics say it is seawater oozing into the church crypt from the harbor. Nicholas’s skeleton did not rest in peace in Bari either. In the medieval craze for holy relics graves were ransacked. More bones of popular saints ended up in the churches of Europe than could possibly come from one body. Numerous churches across Europe and even one in Quebec claim to own one of Nicholas’s fingers. A church in Lille, France, and a monastery in Panschwitz-Kuckau, Germany, each own a tooth. The Orthodox church of St. Nicholas in St. Petersburg, Russia, displays a reliquary with bones purportedly brought to Russia after a visit to Bari by Empress Alexandra, wife of Tsar Nicholas I. Even churches in the United States claim St. Nicholas relics. The Greek Orthodox Church of St. Nicholas in New York lost its relics when the church was completely destroyed on September 11th 2001.

St. Nicholas resurrecting the boys. Breviary of Charles de Neufchatel c. 1498

Among the many legends told about Nicholas are two that show how he became associated with children and gift giving. The story of the boys in a barrel of brine starts out like a particularly harrowing tale from the Brothers Grimm. Three hungry boys approach a butcher’s shop hoping for a meal. But the evil butcher chops them up with his carving knife and pickles them in a barrel of brine. Seven years later St. Nicholas visits the shop and, praying over the barrel, brings the boys back to life. The tale of the three daughters tells of a father who had fallen on hard times and could not afford to pay dowries. So the three young women were unable to marry. Hearing of their plight St. Nicholas decided to help, but anonymously. During the night he threw bags of gold through the window of their house. In some versions of the story the gold landed in the stockings the girls had hung by the fireside to dry. From this tale came Christmas stockings and the traditional gift of an orange in the toe representing the gold. In my childhood it was always a tangerine.

St. Nicholas providing dowries. Bicci di Lorenzo 1433-35

As the legends of St. Nicholas spread throughout Europe he became one of the most popular saints. Hundreds of churches are named for him, including three hundred in Belgium alone. His feast day on December 6th, the anniversary of his death, gradually developed into a special celebration for children. Children received gifts on St. Nicholas Day not on Christmas, which was a day for church going and a special family meal. In many parts of Europe that tradition holds, but gradually the proximity of the feast day to Christmas resulted in the two celebrations blending together in many countries. If St. Nicholas had died in any other month our Christmas celebrations would likely be completely different.

The Belgian tradition my mother grew up with in Flanders goes back to medieval times, but its modern character originates with an 1845 book Sinterklaas en Zijn Knecht (St. Nicholas and His Servant) by the Dutch author Jan Schenkman. In this version St. Nicholas travels by steamboat from Spain with his white horse and his servant, a Moorish youth named Zwarte Piet (Black Pete). Why Spain? Supposedly it was to pick up oranges before sailing on to Holland. In keeping with the didactic nature of much nineteenth century children’s literature, Sinterklaas rides over the rooftops and listens down the chimneys to see if children have been good before delivering gifts. His helper Piet carries a sack of toys and candy. In some other countries St. Nicholas has a more sinister helper. In Germany it is Ruprecht or Krampus who carries a rod to punish naughty children. In Czech and Slovak cultures it is the devil himself who threatens punishment, though somewhat reassuringly St. Nicholas keeps him on a chain. In both Holland and Belgium elaborate parades are held to welcome St. Nicholas and Piet, who often arrive at port cities by boat. Piet tosses candy to the children from his sack and the pair visit schools and churches in the weeks leading up to St. Nicholas Day. In Flanders there is even a St. Nicholas themed circus.

A page from one of my childhood books. “Here Comes the Steamboat”

Zwarte Piet is a very popular character in the St. Nicholas Day festivities but in recent years he has become a controversial figure. The people who play the part in the parades are made up in blackface, wear gold hoops in their ears and traditional Moorish dress as depicted in eighteenth century paintings of African servants in Europe. Today such figures are considered racist stereotypes and, in the wake of African immigration to Europe, there have been protests against the Piet character. In response many communities have changed the image of Piet, dropping the Zwarte from his name. Instead of the offensive blackface some actors stain their faces with blotches of soot, which Piet got from climbing down chimneys of course. There are also Piets with gold faces and rainbow striped faces, explained by an addition to the story: the steamboat sails through a rainbow.

On one of my recent visits to Belgium I found a modern item to add to my childhood St. Nicholas memorabilia. Yes, there is actually a St. Nicholas and Piet Lego set!

The book is titled “Where is the boat going?”

In medieval times St. Nicholas Day was celebrated in England with customs similar to other European countries. It was the Reformation that brought about the switch to Father Christmas. Under Oliver Cromwell’s rule after the Civil War the Puritans were in control of Parliament. They enacted a series of laws known as the Directory of Public Worship to suppress all Catholic practices including saints’ days. They even renamed Christmas “Christ-Tide” to eliminate any reference to the popish mass. Christ-Tide was to be observed in a suitably dour manner with fasting rather than feasting. Even religious celebration of Christ’s birth was discouraged because it was not prescribed in the Bible. Shops and businesses were ordered to stay open. Needless to say it proved impossible to eliminate traditional celebrations altogether. There were even violent clashes between supporters and opponents of Christmas in some towns, including London and Canterbury. Some level of Christmas celebration persisted illegally throughout the Protectorate and came back in full force after the Restoration in 1660. In this period Old Father Christmas, a familiar character from medieval stories and plays, was a convenient secular substitute for St. Nicholas. Probably originating with the pagan King Winter, brought to England by the Saxons and often depicted with a crown of holly or other greenery representing fertility, Father Christmas now took on St. Nicholas’s gift-giving duties. Here was a Christmas figure who would not offend Protestant sensibilities about saints. Meanwhile in Protestant Europe Martin Luther promoted the figure of Christkindl (Christ Child) as a substitute for St. Nicholas.

Forrester’s Pictorial Miscellany 1855

Both the St. Nicholas and the Christkindl traditions were brought to America by successive waves of European immigrants. There is evidence of St. Nicholas Day celebrations in the seventeenth century Dutch settlements of New York. Washington Irving later popularized the tradition with his tales based on Dutch legends. In the nineteenth century German immigrants brought the Christkindl character, usually depicted as a beautiful angel. In the great cultural melting pot of America Sinterklaas was corrupted to Santa Claus and Christkindl to Kris Kringle. Both figures eventually merged into the modern Santa popularized by Clement Moore’s poem The Night Before Christmas first published in 1823. Though the poem calls him St. Nicholas or St. Nick, illustrations even in the earliest editions show no bishop’s mitre or crozier, but a jolly secular figure rather like Old Father Christmas in fact.

1896 edition

Cultural migration came full circle with the late twentieth century spread of American influence worldwide. Santa returned to Europe in his new American guise. In England Father Christmas became more like his American cousin, wearing the standard red suit which originated with Thomas Nast’s drawings for Harper’s Weekly in the 1880’s.

by Thomas Nast
By Thomas Nast for Harper’s Weekly

Meanwhile in continental Europe, in resistance to Americanization, there is actually a movement to suppress Santa in favor of St. Nicholas. Fed up with the over-promotion of Santa and Christmas shopping some communities post signs banning Santa until after St. Nicholas Day. The fact that Santa originated with St. Nicholas seems forgotten. In another sign of anti-Santa sentiment the Dutch band Amazing Sugar Waffles came up with this song:

Santa Claus, beat it on your sleigh.
Back to your house, in the U. S. of A.

Sign in the town of Sint Niklaas, Belgium. “Not till December 6”
Czech cartoon. “Arrested for Identity Theft”
Germany. “Original – Fake”

Some examples of anti-Santa sentiment in Europe








I grew up with St. Nicholas and Father Christmas and accepted Santa Claus once I came to America so I have no problem with this cultural mish-mash. In that spirit I’ll wish you all a Merry Christmas, a Happy Christmas as we say in England, or Happy Holidays, whichever you prefer!

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