Monday, December 1, 2014

The Legend of St. Nicholas

Nicholas of Myra
By Erin Czernecki

Every December we celebrate holiday traditions from different cultures and backgrounds.  Most Americans accept these traditions and add their own family celebrations.  One in particular is interesting: Where does Santa Claus come from?  Is he a real person? As we will see Santa Claus has been evolving for centuries in many different European cultures. 

The origins of Santa Claus comes from the celebration of Sinterklaas by the Dutch who inhabited the Hudson River Valley, Manhattan, parts of New Jersey, Delaware, Pennsylvania, and Connecticut during the 17th century when this area was known as New Netherland.  Sinterklaas is a nickname for a man known as St. Nicholas who was a real person born in Asia Minor.  Many of the stories about him were not written down until 500 years after his death.  As the English started to populate New England and then New York they mixed their traditions of Father Christmas with Sinterklaas.  Other European immigrants came to America and introduced their own customs of Pere Noel, Samichlaus, Kris Kringle, and other versions of St. Nicholas.  In Central Europe, St. Nicholas’ helper is called Krampus and keeps track of the good girls and boys, letting St. Nicholas know who to give presents to.

Nikolaos was born in the 3rd century in a Greek area of Asia Minor on the Mediterranean Sea called Patara.  He was born into a wealthy Christian family.  His parents died in an epidemic when Nikolaos was still young, and he was sent to live with his uncle, the bishop of Patara. He inherited a great fortune and gave most of it away to people in need.  [1]   Nikolaos did not follow the normal route for becoming a bishop.  When the bishop of Myra passed away, there was a gathering to select another bishop.  A decision could not be agreed upon, so they decided that the next day whoever first stepped into the church would become the next bishop.  Nikolaos, now a grown man, had a dream the night before that he would be a great leader.  He woke early in the morning and went immediately to the church, and was declared Nicholas Bishop of Myra. 

In the beginning of the 4th century Emperor Galerius and then Diocletian, persecuted  the early Christians in the Roman Empire.  Many were tortured and put to death for not worshipping the Emperor.  As a well known bishop, Nicholas was said to have been imprisoned and tortured for his beliefs.  These struggles made his people love him even more.   In 325, under Emperor Constantine, a gathering of bishops was called in the city of Nicene.  He was part of the council that wrote the Nicene Creed and set the foundation for Christian doctrine. [2]  

        Russian Icon
There are a few myths and legends that have come down through the generations about Nicholas that establish his appointment to sainthood by the Catholic church.  The most well known story of St. Nicholas is not a miracle but established him as the anonymous gift giver that everyone loved.  This is the story of providing dowries for three daughters of a poor family.   During the middle ages when this story started being told this would be a terrible thing indeed, if the daughters did not have dowries they probably would not be able to marry.  When Nicholas heard of this family’s trouble he wanted to give them money but anonymously.  At night he left a bag of gold at the front door, or dropped it through the window, depending on the story.  The first daughter could marry and as each daughter came of age he would bring another bag of gold.  After the second bag of gold the father was curious so he waited by the door to see who was leaving the money.  Some stories then say that Nicholas went to the roof and dropped the bag of gold down the chimney, other stories say the father caught Nicholas, who then made him swear not to tell anyone who had left the money. [3]                  

                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                       Fra Angelico, 1437
Another miracle attributed to Nicholas for his sainthood is the calming of the sea.  It was said he made a pilgrimage to the Holy Land and boarded a ship on the Mediterranean Sea.  A storm came up and the sailors feared for their lives.  Nicholas prayed and the seas calmed down.  When he returned to the port city, the news of this miracle had already spread.  From this tradition St. Nicholas became the patron saint of mariners.[4]  Many of the mariners considered him their patron saint and spread the stories of St. Nicholas throughout Europe from the area of Asia Minor where they started. 

The third miracle attributed to Nicholas is bringing three boys back to life.  There were three boys gathering wheat in a field when they wandered off and went into the nearby village by themselves.  They stopped at a butcher’s shop to ask for help and food.  This was during a time when the butcher did not have much meat.  The butcher killed the three boys, cut up their bodies and put them in a salting tub to cure and sell them as meat.  Later St. Nicholas came through the village and stopped at the butcher’s house, who invited the bishop in and offers him refreshment.  St. Nicholas points at the salting tub and tells the butcher that he knows what he did.  St. Nicholas brought the boys back to life and returned them to their families.  In some stories the butcher ran away or St. Nicholas made the butcher walk behind him in eternal shame.  This story brings about the notion of St. Nicholas as the patron saint of children.[5]  

  A. Boursier-Mougenot, 1935.

 St. Nicholas became such a popular saint in the Middle Ages that many churches were named after him throughout Europe.  The date of his death, December 6th became his name day, St. Nicholas Day. This day is celebrated in the Netherlands as a children’s holiday.  Starting in mid-November, Sinterklaas would sail into a Dutch harbor on board a ship from Spain.  He came from Spain because in the Middle Ages his bones were moved from Myra to a Spanish town called Bari, which is now in Italy.  He rode a white horse carrying all the presents for the children and was helped by his companion Zwarte Piet (Black Peter).  On the evening of December 5th Dutch children would put their shoes by the fireplace, a window, or the front door.  They usually leave treats in the shoes like carrots and hay for St. Nicholas’ horse.  St. Nicholas would go from rooftop to rooftop and Zwarte Piet would go down the chimney and deliver the presents and treats to the good girls and boys.  In older traditions, Zwarte Piet would put the bad children in a large bag and bring them back to Spain for a year to teach them how to be good.   Later the bad children would just receive switches in the shoes while the good children would awake on the morning of the 6th with shoes filled with fruit, nuts, candy and presents.  [6]                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                        

Special baked goods and drinks would also be made for St. Nicholas Day;  Speculaas Koekjes (spice cookies), Pepernoten (pepper nuts), marzipan, Bisschopswijn (Bishop’s wine), and hot chocolate (said to be St. Nicholas’ favorite).   The spice cookies would be made with a cookie board or mold of St. Nicholas and other images like a windmill. [7]   


After the Protestant Reformation, in the 16th century, the Netherlands turned away from Catholic traditions such as the veneration of saints.  Some leaders tried to stop the celebration of St. Nicholas Day, but it was such a popular holiday that the people continued to celebrate and focused more on the bringing of gifts by Sinterklaas and the festivities of the day.  Christmas Day would be the time for church and focusing on the Christ child.  In the 17th century when the Dutch came to North America and settled the areas of New Netherland they brought their cultures and traditions with them.  There is evidence that in the late 17th century bakers were making some of the festive treats for St. Nicholas Day in December.  After the Revolutionary War, a new interest in the Dutch heritage of New York brought Sinterklaas to life in America.  John Pintard, founder of the New York Historical Society, hosted its first St. Nicholas anniversary dinner in 1810.  Artist Alexander Anderson was commissioned to draw an image of the Saint for the dinner.  He was shown as a religious figure, but he was clearly leaving gifts for the children in their stockings which were hung by the fireplace to dry.

                                                                                  Alexander Anderson, 1810.

Nothing fixed the image of Santa Claus in American traditions like the poem “A Visit from St. Nicholas” written in 1822 by Clement Moore.  He used the basis of Sinterklaas and added German and Norse legends of an elf-like man delivering presents from house to house in his sleigh with reindeer.  Moore wrote the story for his family, but it was published in 1823 in the Troy Sentinal and renamed “The Night Before Christmas”.  In 1881 Thomas Nast, a cartoonist, did a series of drawings for Harper’s Weekly having Santa living at the North Pole and making toys for the good girls and boys in his workshop. 

            Thomas Nast, 1881.

Often this Santa was shown wearing different colored outfits until the 1940’s when Coca Cola cemented the image of Santa Claus in red and white trim.[8]  Everything else we associate with Santa Claus, like his elf helpers and Rudolph, were added in the 20th century.  Children in the Netherlands and other parts of Europe still celebrate St. Nicholas as they have for hundreds of years. These traditions make this time of year all the more special, passing down the stories and celebrations from one generation to another. 

Santa Claus is a culmination of fact and fiction that was contributed by cultures all over Europe and that incorporates history, tradition and family valves that has attracted millions over the years.  The story continues to evolve. Happy St. Nicholas Day everyone and Merry Christmas. 


1.       Lanzi, Gioia (2004). Saints and their symbols: recognizing saints in art and in popular images. Liturgical Press. p. 111. 

2.       Wheeler, Joe and Jim Rosenthal. St. Nicholas: A Closer look at Christmas. Nelson Reference & Electronic, 2005. 

3.       “The Story of the Dowries”.

4.       “St. Nicholas of Myra, Bishop and Wonder-worker”.

5.       Boursier-Mougenot, A. “Le Legende de Saint Nicholas”. Tours Maison Mame, 1935.

6.       "Knickerbocker Santa Claus". St. Nicholas Center. 4 December 1953.

7.       “Recipes”.

8.       “St. Nicholas”.

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