The Real St. Nicholas – How Did a Cantankerous but Holy Bishop Become Jolly Ole St. Nick?

Today is the Feast of St. Nicholas. The real St. Nicholas was nothing close to the St. Nick  (Santa Claus) of the modern age. He was a thin curmudgeonly man with a zeal for the Lord that caused flairs of anger. Compromise was unknown to him. The slow transformation of him into “Jolly ole’ Saint Nicholas is a remarkable recasting of him centuries in the making. Some years ago the Washington Post featured an article entitled Poles Apart: Nicholas of Myra; How a 4th-Century Bishop Achieved Fame 1,500 Years Later, With a Whole New Attitude.

Since I had to blog twice yesterday (due to the need to respond to the current Washington Post article on Clergy Sexual Abuse) I thought I might take a break and present excerpts from the article that detail the real St. Nicholas of Myra.  It is a very engaging look at the cantankerous Saint who lived through some very tough times.

I am aware that hagiography (the study of the Saints) is sometimes more art than science. I cannot vouch for every detail in the article and would be interested if some of you intrepid hagiographers what to clarify, correct or add to the details given.

The Full Article (which details, somewhat thoroughly, St. Nicholas’ transition to Santa) can be read here: Poles Apart. I have also placed a PDF of the whole article which is more easily printed here: PDF – Poles Apart Nicholas and Nick

Enjoy this excerpt on the real St. Nicholas of Myra (aka Santa):

The year is 325. The place is Nicaea, a small town near the Black Sea in what is now Turkey. Thousands of priests, 318 bishops, two papal lieutenants and the Roman emperor Constantine are gathered to face a looming church crisis…..

One of the churchmen rises to speak. Arius, from the Egyptian city of Alexandria, tells the gathering that Jesus was not divine. He was just a prophet. Suddenly, a second man is on his feet, an obscure, cantankerous bishop named Nicholas. He approaches Arius, fist raised menacingly. There are gasps. Would he dare? He would. Fist strikes face. Arius goes down. He will have a shiner. Nick, meanwhile, is set upon by holy men. His robes are torn off. He is thrown into a dungeon.

Peer down through the bars. Behold the simmering zealot sitting there, scowling, defiant, imprisoned for his uncompromising piety. Recognize his sallow face? No? Well, no reason you should. But he knows you. He’s been to your house many times….

[O]n this holiday we  examine the puzzling paradox of Santa Claus. On the one hand, we have the modern Santa, a porcine, jolly man who resides at the North Pole with a woman known only as Mrs. Claus. …

On the other hand, we have the ancient Santa. Saint Nicholas. Paintings show a thin man. He was spare of frame, flinty of eye, pugnacious of spirit. In the Middle Ages, he was known as a brawling saint. He had no particular sense of humor that we know of. He could be vengeful, wrathful, an embittered ex- con….No doubt, Saint Nick was a good man. A noble man. But a hard man.

Nicholas was born in Patara, a small town on the Mediterranean coast, 280 years after the birth of Christ. He became bishop of a small town in Asia Minor called Myra. Beyond that, details of his life are more legend than fact….He became a priest at 19, and bishop in his twenties….Diocletian ruled the Roman Empire; it was the early 300s, and…began the “Great Persecution.”…. Nicholas kept preaching Christianity, and was arrested and tortured for disobeying the new laws. He spent more than a decade in jail. Among his punishments, according to Saint Simeon’s 10th-century history, were starvation and thirst. That is how Santa got skinny…. Twelve years later, AD 312, ….Constantine triumphed. Across the empire, bishops and priests returned to work and Nicholas got out of jail. He tended to local business. He was not pleasant about it. At the time, Myra was a hotbed of Artemis-worship…Nicholas prayed for vengeance, and his prayers were answered. Artemis’s temple crumbled. ” …The priests who lived in Artemis’s temple ran in tears to the bishop. They appealed to his Christian mercy. They wanted their temple restored.….Nicholas was not moved. Prison had left him in no mood for compromise. “Go to Hell’s fire,” he is said to have said, “which has been lit for you by the Devil.”

The Time of Nick In his lifetime, Nicholas crusaded against official corruption and injustice, seeing both as an affront to God. Supposedly, his intervention — through fire-and-brimstone denunciations of corrupt officials — saved at least a half-dozen innocent men from the gallows or the chopping block. He was forgiven for punching Arius and rescued from the dungeon. In the end, his views on the Trinity were vindicated by the adoption of the Nicene Creed, which declares Christ divine. Saint Nick died on Dec. 6. The year could be 326 or 343 or 352, depending whose account you rely on. Why we know the day of the year, but not the year itself, will be explained forthwith…..

……Nicholas of Myra might not seem like the kind of person who relates to kids, and few acts attributed to him involve children. There are two, though neither is exactly the stuff of sugar plums and Christmas stockings. In one tale, widely told, Nicholas secretly delivers three bags of gold to a penniless father. The debtor dad uses the loot as dowries so his three girls do not have to become prostitutes….The second anecdote tells of the time a tavern owner robbed, murdered three children, hiding their remains in pickle barrels. …Fortunately, Saint Nicholas happened to walk through the tavern-keeper’s door….Soon, all three boys, were back home, reeking of pickle juice. What became of the shopkeeper is unrecorded…. By the Middle Ages, Nick had become the patron saint of children, and he had a new gig: gift-giving. Throughout Europe, the legend spread: He delivered trinkets to good kids and twigs to naughty ones. It was an uneasy transition — from curmudgeon to cuddle-bear. ….

🙂  As said above you can click on those links to read the full story of how St. Nicholas of Myra morphed into Santa Claus.

Here’s a Medieval Version of “Jolly old St. Nicholas.” The text is the Introit for the feast of St. Nicholas (Statuit ei Dominus) and translated says: The Lord made unto him a covenant of peace, and made him a prince, that the dignity of the priesthood should be to him forever.

Here’s the Modern Version:  🙂

16 Replies to “The Real St. Nicholas – How Did a Cantankerous but Holy Bishop Become Jolly Ole St. Nick?”

  1. Thank you for that, Monsignor. Very entertaining, particularly for a fellow “Nick” such as myself celebrating his name’s day today.
    It just goes to show that the Lord works in mysterious and above all unpredictable ways, and that there is hope for all of us humble sinners when such ‘unlikely’ characters as Nicholas of Myra can be drawn to sainthood. The more I learn about the saints, the more I realise how wonderfully shocking the call of the Lord is – just as the Son of God being born in a stable was wonderfully shocking. Could this be proof that God has a sense of humour? That is not meant in any irreverent way, incidentally – I truly believe that our sense of “hum”our is one of the things which makes us most “hum”an and therefore in God’s likeness. Perhaps the evolution of St Nicholas to Santa Claus is providential after all, marking an evolution in Christianity from severe times of persecution requiring stern reactions to a contemporary Christianity facing different persecution, more from ridicule than violence at least in the Western world, and therefore requiring a brave face of humour which affirms the love of God while never straying from the deadly serious core of its message pertaining to salvation. Just my thoughts for this feast day.
    God bless you, Monsignor, and thank you once again for the daily spiritual bread of your posts, which I thoroughly enjoy and which nurture me in the midst of a barren, atheist city.

  2. Forgot to put my shoes out for St. Nicholas Day last night; he did not forget me though I found an orange on my door this morning. I guess I was a good kid this year, or atleast good enough.

    But the real gift is much better than an orange; it is the blessing of a jolly young neighbor who keeps the little traditions of the faith alive and reminds us to bring joy and faith to the world.

  3. It’s sad how Christmas is no longer seen as Christian. It’s like a warning about secularization. Another one is that most youth in America no longer believe in marriage because of so many divorces. I can’t help but wonder how far the world will go.

  4. Luke 2:14 Glory to God in the highest; and on earth peace to men of good will.

    I’m trying not to get carried away, but this is spectacular, new insights into ‘men of good will.’ I wonder if Rudolphs red nose that shines so bright has anything to do with this?

  5. Great post! The video is very moving too (Statuit ei Dominus), I wish we still had chant like this during the mass, it’s very humbling. Wish I knew Latin.

    1. It doesn’t hurt to try and learn it. The first steps are learning the Hail Mary and then the Hail, Holy Queen and then the Our Father and Glory be… the next steps are learning the fixed portions of the Liturgy of the Eucharist, Word, and Hours.

      1. Thank you, Ammazzamoro. This is exactly the humble entry to our glorious Latin heritage I needed.

  6. Perhaps, Msgr. Pope will be pleased to learn that my legal name is Santa Claus and that I’m a consecrated Bishop of the Apostles’ Anglican Church and a Monk in the Order of the Anam Cara.

    I believe that Christmas is the celebration of the birth of Christ, not the crass, commercial, secular spectacle it has become in many places, and that the greatest gift one can give is love, not presents.

    I serve as a full-time volunteer advocate for millions of vulnerable children in dire straits and pray, especially this year, that parents will donate, in their child’s name, to an established local charity providing health, safety and welfare for needy children.

    Also, I trust many parents will volunteer this month at a food kitchen for the poor and homeless and bring their children along to help, instilling or reinforcing a sense of compassion in them.

    Blessings to all, Santa

    The Rt. Rev. Santa Claus, OAC

  7. The excerpts from the article remind one what a varied lot of legendary details about St. Nicholas there are; they do not all correspond to my sense of him, either from the earliest extant Life, or from the folk and popular cultural aspects.

    For one thing, that he is he is consistently kindly and helpful, whether sternly or not, could be brought out more, to my way of thinking. But that sternly has a long tradition of getting quite fierce…

    I can recall Santa giving bad children salt (which does not work so well where maniacal salt-lovers are concerned…).

    The ‘rod’ or bundle of sticks for spanking have long been a part of Continental European St. Nicholas traditions, and still feature in imagery, songs, etc., if not in practice. Take a look at the images on this link – with 17th-c. examples of the rod/bundle (roe) found in shoe (rather than stocking), with a little devil ‘helper’ following the Saint with one, with a 19th-c. thinnish, distinctly episcopal-looking Saint letting a bad boy really have it:

    And have a look at the Wikipedia articles for Saint Nicholas, Companions of St. Nicholas, and Krampus, and click to their German language versions for more images. A lot of popular St. Nicholas’s still have fierce, frightening helpers – whether strictly kakodaimonic or not – who they keep down, but who frighten naughty children. (And it sounds like they get out of hand, in other traditions!)

  8. I have also seen an interesting Dutch print (19th-c., I think) where traditional iconology of Our Lord cleansing the Temple/sheep and goats seems to be deliberately evoked with respect to good and bad children (but I don’t know how to begin searching online for it, so I cannot share it!).

    1. Further in this line, the song “Santa Claus is Coming to Town” came swimming up into my mind: “He’s making his list, checking it twice, […]” – this ‘list’- or ‘Book’ in some Continental traditions – corresponds in its little, this-worldly way – and so reminds and points ahead to – what a ‘recording angel’ keeps, to the Book of Life.

      I am not sure how deeply intended another couple lines of that song are, but they easily bear the greatest depth of meaning: “He knows when you’ve been bad or good, so be good, for Goodness’s sake!” Rather than necessarily merely suggesting a self-interested prudential calculation, the final phrase, while avoiding any danger of taking God’s Name in vain, points to doing and being what you ought – are intended – to, for the love of Goodness Himself!

      “He knows when you’ve been bad or good” also got me thinking of what is attested as being sometimes given to certain holy people (is Padre Pio a good example?) of being able to see into someone’s life to their benefit.

  9. I find this to be a very interesting post, especially since St. Nicholas is the Patron Saint of the church of which I’m a member of the congregation.
    Last year I came upon a post the source of which was claimed to be a periodical called “Image” put out by the Greek Catholic Union. (Catholic church of the Byzantine Rite, commonly called the Greek Catholic Church or the Ukrainian Catholic Church, although it appears that there are also many Hungarian members)
    According to the post, in 1907 in Monongah, West Virginia there was a mine disaster which resulted in the deaths of many miners except for at least sixty miners of Hungarian origin who took the day off to attend church for the Feast of St. Nicholas.
    Fifteen days later almost two hundred of the four hundred member crew of the mine in Jacobs Creek, Pennsylvania took the day off to celebrate the Feast of St. Nicholas according to the old Julian calender which is still used in part of Eastern Europe. A huge mine explosion killed the miners who had gone to work but, those attending the feast day were spared.

  10. I’ve just finished a Book of Saints. The other day I had to defend St Nicholas to someone who is against the Santa Claus idea of Christmas – and I knew how to explain Santa the saint to her, because I did the research!

    Thanks, I appreciate your articles. God bless you, Caeli

  11. Thank you for this well stated response. I have had many to point out various accusations regarding Rick Warren and had not known what was the truth. This will help me with my response to others. What I have been saying is that what I do know is truth is this man’s Purpose Driven Life Book is what changed my life in recent years. It forced me to re-evaluate my life and see that I was not putting Christ first and myself second. For that alone I am indebted to Mr. Warren.

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