It’s complicated. Like Keith Richards, the Santa legend is ancient, murky, and fairly disturbing. The cuddly version — grandfatherly St. Nick employing elfin labor to make toys for the children of the world — is only the latest in a long line of iterations. Santa has evolved.
The original Saint Nicholas was a Christian bishop in 4th-century Myra, geographically located in modern-day Turkey. As an adult, Nicholas gained a reputation as a generous man and the protector of innocents. These saintly traits largely arose from two horrific legends, both of which eventually led to his canonization.
The first is said to have occurred during a terrible famine. A local butcher, in need of something to sell, lured three unsuspecting boys into his shop. He killed the boys, chopped them into pieces, then stuffed their remains in a brine tub, hoping to cure them enough that he could sell the parts as ham. Nicholas was visiting the afflicted region at the time of the crime. Somehow Nicholas became aware of the butcher’s wicked deed. He visited the shop, uncovered the crime, and hastily reassembled the three boys. They came back to life, a bit salty but otherwise in good health. Despite the happy ending, it’s not exactly the kind of story that gets told at the Christmas Eve candlelight service.
In the second legend, a poor citizen of Myra had three daughters, but not enough money to afford a dowry for them. No dowry meant no marriage, and unmarried women in those days generally had one career choice: prostitution. The father was less than thrilled by this possibility, but too proud to ask for help. Nicholas discovered the family’s predicament the night before the first daughter came of age. Not wanting to embarrass anyone, he approached the family’s house late one night and tossed a bag of gold through an opened window. He did the same thing the night before the second daughter came of age. Both gifts were enough to cover the dowry, and both girls were spared the consequence of their poverty.
Before long, the third daughter was ready to marry, and the appreciative father wanted to find out who was behind the lavish gifts. When the time came, the father hid next to the window, hoping to catch their anonymous benefactor in the act. Nicholas learned of the father’s plan and improvised: Instead of lobbing it through the window, he dropped the third bag of gold down the chimney.
It wasn’t long before people began to suspect that the kindly bishop Nicholas, who had inherited money from his affluent parents, was behind these mysterious actions and a great many other secretive gifts to the poor. After he died of old age on December 6, 343 AD the people of Myra continued providing for those in need. In fact, they made a practice of giving gifts anonymously, always attributing them to the late Bishop Nicholas.
Before long, the bishop — who had worn liturgical robes of red and white — was canonized as a saint. Saint Nicholas became venerated as the protector of innocents, the patron saint of children, and a secret giver of gifts.
Of course, the traditional American idea of Santa Claus — along with his British/Canadian counterpart, Father Christmas — originates in the stories surrounding Nicholas of Myra. As far as saints go, St. Nick was especially venerated in the Netherlands, where he became known by the Dutch variant Sinterklaas. When the Dutch came to the New World and settled in New Amsterdam (today’s New York City), they brought with them the story of the now-anglicized “Santa Claus.”
And as is our custom, we Americans made the story bigger and gaudier, tacking on details from several unrelated sources. The karmic idea of rewarding good kids and punishing naughty children is rooted in old Norse folktales. The stuff about the reindeer and Santa’s sleigh got added once Clement Moore’s poem, “Twas The Night Before Christmas,” swept the nation in the early 1800s. Decades later, the magazine Harper’s Weekly commissioned several Thomas Nast engravings which depicted Santa in his workshop, reading letters and checking lists. The legend grew.
And here we are today. Kids leave cookies near the fireplace, parents are careful to preserve bootprints in the ashes, and Santa has transitioned into the 21st century. No longer does he oversee the building of simple wooden toys in his elf-staffed workshop. Nope. These days, little boys and girls — whether they’re good or bad, or rich or poor — probably expect Santa to drop a new iPod Nano in their stocking. Or, at the very least, the High School Musical 2 DVD. A wooden toy train? Unthinkable.
You have to feel for St. Nick. The legendary protector of children and distributor of anonymous gifts to the poor has turned into a victim of the worst kind of western entitlement and consumerism. Kids are more demanding. Chimneys are smaller. Families are leaving skim milk and low-fat cookies instead of the real stuff. It’s hard out there for a right jolly old elf. Somewhere deep within the folds of Santa’s suit, we’ve lost the story of St. Nick.
I’m always an advocate for stripping away the Santa Claus stuff at Christmastime and focusing on Jesus. But there’s a wide chasm between baby Jesus and Santa Claus, and maybe it’s a lot to ask a Christianity-averse culture to make that long journey from one side to the other.
Perhaps a better idea is to move them toward the middle by resurrecting Saint Nicholas of Myra. Annoyed with all the Jesus talk? Don’t want to celebrate Christ at Christmas? Fine. Then let’s celebrate someone else. Let’s talk about the 4th-century dude who kept little boys from grisly deaths and kept little girls out of the sex trade. Let’s talk about the revered religious figure who freed those in bondage, who restored life to the lifeless, and who refused to overlook the suffering of the innocent. Let’s talk about the man of God who gave out of his prosperity, who dispensed grace with no strings attached, who lived to bless those trapped in poverty.
Let’s talk about Saint Nicholas, the Bishop of Myra, Sinterklaas 1.0.
Maybe the distance between the North Pole and Bethlehem isn’t so great after all.
This story has been adapted from an article that originally ran in issue 30 of RELEVANT.