The Real St. Nicholas – Not Fat and Not Very Jolly Either.

Today (Dec 6) 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.

On this feast of St Nicholas, I thought I might take a break from yesterday’s rather heavy topic,  and present lighter excerpts from the article that details 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: 🙂

30 Replies to “The Real St. Nicholas – Not Fat and Not Very Jolly Either.”

  1. Monsignor, I once played Santa to individual children, to families, to extended families, to Christmas parties by organizations for their kids – I NEVER got tired of the roles for the wonder in those young eyes. The kids would light me up with Jesus’ own grand light, for the love they had for one who represented the King of Creation. They were pleased to have gifts, but they loved being with one who can go by the title ‘Saint’, too. Never accepted but maybe a quick meal – no booze, please – because I was much in-demand; and I had drives ahead of me over long evenings in the few days leading up to the Birthday of God’s own Only Son. A few times it cost my wife and I a goodly sum of money to give a poor family gifts and food and joy. Believe me, graces were never so wondrous as I was given for Christmas, being Santa. God is good, and during my red-suit forays, good to all, all the way around.

    Now, if I find no opportunity to tell you before that one night, may the angels sing for you and bring you great joy on Christmas. May the gentle light of our Holy Family be upon you, and yours.

  2. St. Nicholas’ remains are buried in the crypt of the Basilica di San Nicola in Bari, Italy. These bones were temporarily removed when the crypt was repaired during the 1950s. At the Vatican’s request, anatomy professor Luigi Martino from the University of Bari, took thousands of minutely-detailed measurements and x-ray photographs (roentgenography) of the skull and other bones.

    The current professor of forensic pathology at the University of Bari, Francesco Introna, knew advancements in diagnostic technique could yield much more from the data gathered in the 1950s. So he engaged an expert facial anthropologist, Caroline Wilkinson, at the University of Manchester in England, to construct a model of the saint’s head from the earlier measurements.

    Using this data, the medical artist used state-of-the-art computer software to develop the model of St. Nicholas. The virtual clay was sculpted on screen using a special tool that allows one to “feel” the clay as it is molded. Dr. Wilkinson says, “In theory you could do the same thing with real clay, but it’s much easier, far less time-consuming and more reliable to do it on a computer.”

    After inferring the size and shape of facial muscles—there are around twenty-six—from the skull data, the muscles are pinned onto the virtual skull, stretched into position, and covered with a layer of “skin.” “The muscles connect in the same place on everyone, but because skulls vary in shape, a different face develops,” Wilkinson comments. The tangents from different parts of the nasal cavity determine the length of a nose. This was difficult because St. Nicholas’ nose had been badly broken. “It must have been a very hefty blow because it’s the nasal bones between the eyes that are broken,” she continued.

    Here is what he aparently looked like, before – and after with his broken nose- he demonstrated his love for The Lord:

    Good talk you gave yesterday, Monsignore.
    Good fight.

        1. Thanks for that link. Interesting that all the iconographers display the Saint with a widow’s peak but the reconstruction omits it. Also, thin nose on all the icons, not so much on the reconstruction.

  3. Saint Nicholas would probably sucker punch the guy in the Santa suit for slander and an annoying lack of talent.

  4. Some of the great Catholic leaders of the past really did have an “all or nothing” attitude.

  5. It is also significant that one of the tales has St Nick intent on preserving the chastity of innocent girls. He belongs on the list of saints, such as John the Baptist and Thomas More, who risked all to preserve sexual innocence and Christian marriage.

  6. I told my tenth graders this story when we discussed the Council of Nicaea this year. They loved it!

  7. As for the stories involving children, I’ve found that sometimes, people that are tough as nails with their fellow adults are often quite kind to children. Perhaps St. Nicholas saw an innocence in them that he did not see in his peers.

  8. My dad told me that when he was in high school, if someone had a grudge against one of the priests, that person could put on boxing gloves and go three rounds of fisticuffs with one of the priests, not the priest he had a grudge against, necessarily, but against one of the young, healthy ones. That was in the 1930’s. I once heard a priest say that a fist fight is probably only a venial sin, but if you really try to hurt someone, that is serious.

  9. I have the honor to have been assaulted once by St. Nicholas. He left his calling card in the ER. Ho, ho.

  10. Ever since I heard the real ‘impact’ (pun intended) of St. Nicholas and the Council of Nicea, I’ve relished telling it to my students (who are from age 5 to 80). The history was first told to me by a 20-something non-practicing Catholic man at 4 a.m. as we sat on Hollywood Boulevard outside Grauman’s Chinese Theater, sharing a pizza with others in our group, while we were waiting for a Batman movie premiere in 2005. I had just been hired by our parish to be the RCIA Director and was astonished that I had never heard this about the real St. Nicholas.

    Gabriel — thanks for the link!

  11. He also hit a quack psychologist on the head while working for Macy’s some time back in the 40s. The guy was trying to convince some kid that he hated his dad, so the quack had it coming!

    “He will have a shiner.”

    Excellent idea! So will I! Off to my friendly neighborhood bar!

  12. I like this St Nick better than the modern English one I wish our Bishops had the same stuff.

  13. “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.”

    And from one heresy, Arianism, gave way to another pernicious heresy-Mohammedism. Oh, for the days when orthodoxy was fought with zeal. May St. Nicholas pray for us. +JMJ+

  14. I understand that there is an English translation of the earliest Life of St. Nicholas included in Charles W. Jones’s 1978 book, St. Nicholas of Myra, Bari, and Manhatten. Around 960, Reginold, later Bishop of Eichstätt, wrote a St. Nicholas Office made up of 46 texts based closely on that Life. There are various recordings of medieval St. Nicholas-related music, miostly in Latin, including two sung plays, and one, at least, of St. Godric’s early English St. Nicholas hymn.

  15. No kidding he punched the guy, he basically was saying that the last 10 years of starvation, dehydration and torture were for nothing. I would have punched him too. Please God, give our Bishops strength and courage, and a love of truth.

  16. We have relatives in Holland where they celebrate the feast of St. Nicholas also. Only the story there goes
    that he was a bishop who traveled from Spain to the Netherlands on a steamboat. The children sing
    a song about the Sinterklaas arriving via the steamboat and they put out their shoes to receive gifts.
    Does anybody know how this version came about?

    1. The steamboat and Spain, if I am not mistaken, appear for the first time around 1848 or 1850 in a story book of poems by the Amsterdam schoolmaster, Jan Schenkman. The illustrations from what seems to be the only surviving copy can be seen here:

      A second edition with a different illustrator came out about two years later, and has been very influential on the popular celebration of the feast, in which he still arrives annually on a Saturday in November.The poems seem first to have been set to music around 1912. There were various St. Nicholas folk songs long before that.

      Schenkman’s – and his illustrators’ – possible sources for things like Spain and the costume of his helper are uncertain and, so, much discussed.

  17. Oops! Memory failed me at a couple points! What I’ve read that Charles Jones has, is a translation of Nicephorus’s account of the bringing of St. Nicholas’s relics from Myra to Bari. (He may have other things, too: it sounds like an interesting book!). And Reginold follows for the most part the earliest Latin Life, by John the Deacon. (I see that the LeHigh University Digital Library has two photos online from a MS. of Reginold’s work.) John follows, for the most part the Greek Life by Methodios. Methodios closely follows the Life by Michael the Archimandrite, which is the earliest full Life now known to survive. Unfortunately, I do not know whether any of these are translated into English!

    I see that it is possible to listen to samples from the 1999 CD by Anonymous 4, The Legend of St. Nicholas, at Amazon, but I have not tried to, yet, myself. At the entry for the CD at Harmonia Mundi you can hear their lovely recording of St. Godric’s St. Nicholas hymn (while Wikipedia has a photo of a MS. of it in his article).

    In answer to ThomasL’s question, ‘Statuit ei’ is the Introit from the Common of a Confessor-Bishop, and so shared by many saints.

  18. Sometimes I wonder about the effect the Santa Claus (not the real St. Nicholas) story has on children as they grow “too old to believe in Santa Claus.” At which point some parents tell their children a variation of the story claiming Santa Clause doesn’t really physically exist – and never has existed–it is the spirit of the season.
    Now what does that do to the child’s belief in the Birth of a real live Saviour and Redeemer physically present (incarnated) in history??? No REAL Santa–No REAL Christ is certainly going to be at least the subconscious conclusion of some children.

    1. Both the GKC piece in “Welcoming Santa” linked above and someone’s experience reported in the comments there reward reading in this context. I wonder how complicated and tricky such situations can be? One part is the giving of “secret presents” as “Father Nicholas Christmas” (“called Nicholas after the Saint”) refers to that practice in his 1930 letter to the Tolkien children. For, in different “secret presents” traditions the ‘givers’ are variously the real St. Nicholas of Myra, Sts. Caspar, Melchior, and Balthasar, and the Christ Child! Who has ‘really’ given the presents? Another part is “Santa Claus (not the real St. Nicholas)” or Father Christmas or the Yule Tomte or whoever as the ‘giver’.

      My immediate thoughts (for what they are worth!) about how to resist damaging conscious or subconscious conclusions and effects are two. First, the most ‘real’ giver is always, ultimately God. In Archimandrite Michael’s Life of St. Nicholas, the impoverished father prays, a dowry gets mysteriously tossed in the window, and he thanks God – feeling he can treat the present as a “gift from God” – and only later further prays God to let him learn “who among all people You have made into Your good angel for me”. And in the medieval Blois play of the same events, the only words in the whole play the young Nicholas (after answering who he is) utters – about his own decision to use his own gold to help – are “Praise God on account of the gifts received and do not attribute it to me but to the generosity of the Lord, I beg you, brother!”

      Second, that when the ‘giver’ is someone like “Santa Claus”, Father Christmas or the Yule Tomte, what is going on is not like the fraud of the Bel priests which Daniel discovers, nor exactly like the disguise of St. Raphael in Tobit, but most like a parable – where the truth does not depend on the people in the parable being ‘historical’ and even a fictional story can help us to appreciate the real, historical wonder better.

  19. This article was tremendous, and thank you Msgr. for the PDF as well. The Saints come alive for me when I know the fullness of their humanity; I really loved this!

  20. That is the problem with my neighbour, Washington.They don’t know the real truth. Santa Claus resides in Canada at our North Pole. Superman,also a Canadian, lived there as well.
    Ah well…A very Merry Christmas to all from the land of real milk and real honey.

  21. In 2005 my wife was the medical officer for the Peace Corps in Mongolia, while we were there my son Andrew who was a Marine in Iraq was killed by a roadside bomb. In order to deal with it all I volunteered in an orphanage run by French nuns in Ulaanbaatar. That year, two months after Andrew’s death the nuns asked if I be Santa Claus to the children, and it was one of the most rewarding experiences of my life. We had purchased gifts for all of them and to see their faces light up when they entered the room and saw me did so much to lift a heavy heart. To be part of the Spirit of St Nickolas, for those few hours helped make that Christmas one of the most memorable that I will ever experience.

Comments are closed.