The white-bearded Christian saint whose acts of generosity inspired the secular figure of America’s Santa Claus is known around the world – but the origin story of Saint Nicholas is not.
The legends surrounding jolly old St. Nicholas – celebrated annually on December 6 – go far beyond delivering candy and toys to children.
WHO WAS ST. Nicholas?
Saint Nicholas was a 4th-century Christian bishop from the Mediterranean port city of Myra (in present-day Turkey).
“Much of the rest is legend. There’s not really a lot of concrete historical evidence about St. Nicholas,” said the Rev. Nicholas Ayo, author of “St. Nicholas in America: Christmas, Holy Day and Holidays.”
But the question isn’t really whether these stories are true, said Ayo, an 89-year-old retired University of Notre Dame professor named after St. Nicholas.
“There is no Santa Claus who lands on the roof, but there is in people’s hearts a desire for unconditional love that does not depend on your behavior, but on the fact that you are someone’s child ‘A.”
Devotion to Saint Nicholas – also called Saint Nicholas – spread during the Middle Ages throughout Europe and he became a favorite subject for medieval artists and liturgical pieces, according to the Encyclopedia Britannica. He is the patron saint of Greece and Russia, Moscow and New York, as well as charities, children and pawnbrokers.
He is also the patron saint of sailors. In 1807, Italian sailors transported the remains of St. Nicholas from Myra to the port of Bari, on the southeast coast of the Italian boot. They built a church in his honor; relics believed to be his are preserved in the Basilica of San Nicola in Bari, dating from the 11th century.
WHEN IS ST. THE FEAST OF SAINT NICHOLAS AND HOW IS IT CELEBRATED?
St. Nicholas Day is celebrated every year on December 6, usually by filling the stockings and shoes that children leave out overnight with candy and toys. It is also a very appropriate date for the patron saint of sailors.
“The feast of St. Nicholas in December coincides with the start of the winter storm season in the Mediterranean,” writes Ayo.
WHAT ARE THE LEGENDS OF ST. PSEUDO?
Legends surrounding the generosity of Saint Nicholas appear in texts ranging from medieval manuscripts to modern poems, including how he interceded on behalf of wrongly convicted prisoners and miraculously saved sailors from storms.
One of the most famous legends, says Ayo, involves the aging father of three young women who could not afford to pay their dowries. Saint Nicholas is said to have thrown gold coins into the man’s window.
“He is the Nicolas par excellence,” writes Ayo. “It requires no miracles, no gullibility on the part of the listener and no superstition at any level. What is required is only a generous heart, ready to give of its wealth in any way erased. so that others can experience deep love in their lives.
HOW TO ST. NICK INSPIRES THE AMERICAN SANTA FIGURINE?
Devotion to Saint Nicholas seems to have faded after the Protestant Reformation of the 16th century, except in the Netherlands where his legend remained under the name of Sinterklaas. In the 17th century, Dutch Protestants who settled in New York brought with them the tradition of Sinterklaas.
“The Dutch had St. Nicholas on the bow of the first ship that entered New York Harbor,” Ayo said. Eventually, Saint Nicholas transformed himself into a secular Santa Claus.
Artist Thomas Nast, a printmaker in Morristown, New Jersey, who illustrated the cover of Harper’s magazine for many years, played a key role in this transformation, Ayo said.
“He followed the description of Santa Claus or Saint Nicholas – and the poem ‘Twas the Night Before Christmas’ by Clement Clarke Moore,” says Ayo. “So that’s how it changed. But in Europe, the bishop sometimes shows up at the door dressed as a bishop.”
Santa photographs are easy to find during the holiday season. But a simple search led to some interesting snapshots of Ol’ Saint Nick.
USA News Gb1