St. Nicholas was born into a wealthy Christian family in the third century. His parents died in a plague, and having inherited the family fortune, he decided to obey the radical call of Christ and give it to the poor. So he became famous for his generosity to those in need, his love for children, and his concern for sailors and ships.
Bishop Nicholas was exiled and imprisoned during the persecutions under the Emperor Diocletian, and after his release, attended the Council of Nicaea in AD 325 where he famously lost his temper and slapped the heretic Arius in the face. He died December 6, AD 343 in Myra and was buried in his cathedral church. Legends grew up about his generosity, and throughout the Middle Ages he became one of the most popular and wonder-working saints across Europe.
Now “jolly old St. Nick,” aka Santa Claus, is a secular figure used to promote godless good cheer and commercial consumerism. What happened?
St. Nicholas travelled well because, among other things, he was the patron saint of seafarers. Therefore, the first Europeans to arrive in the New World travelled with St. Nicholas as their patron. On his first voyage, Columbus named a Haitian port for St. Nicholas on the saint’s feast day December 6, 1492 and in Florida, the town now named Jacksonville was first called St. Nicholas Ferry by the Spanish explorers.
The Protestant revolutionaries were not enthusiastic about saints, but the celebrations around St. Nicholas’ Day were so popular that they had trouble stamping them out completely. Northern Europeans—especially the Dutch— continued to celebrate with a man on horseback dressed as an Eastern bishop in red vestments and flowing white beard processing through the streets. Remembering Nicholas’ gifts of gold to redeem children about to be sold into slavery, the celebrations included parties with childish hijinks, and gifts of nuts, apples, and sweets placed in shoes and stockings left beside beds before the hearth.
The popular version of the narrative is that the Dutch brought St. Nicholas Day customs to the new world. However historians disagree and suggest that it was German immigrants in Pennsylvania who kept the feast of St. Nicholas. They were the “Pennsylvania Dutch”—the “Dutch” meaning “Deutsch” or “German” rather than the Dutch from the Netherlands. It was from Pennsylvania that the St. Nicholas celebrations made their way to New York and only after American Independence did the Netherlander Dutch in New York begin to remember and celebrate their heritage.
The St. Nicholas Center website reveals that “John Pintard, the influential patriot and antiquarian who founded the New York Historical Society in 1804, promoted St. Nicholas as patron saint of both society and city. In January 1809, Washington Irving joined the society and on St. Nicholas Day that same year, he published Knickerbocker’s History of New York, with humorous references to a jovial St. Nicholas.”
Irving’s St. Nicholas was not an Eastern Orthodox bishop, but a mischievous Dutchman with a clay pipe. The author’s imagination places St. Nick in Dutch New Amsterdam, and for the first time he is seen dropping down chimneys to give gifts to kids. When the New York Historical Society held its first St. Nicholas celebration on Dec 6, 1810, Pintard got artist Alexander Anderson to create an image of the saint filling stockings by the fireplace.
The idea caught on. Eleven years later publisher William B. Gilley brought out Sante Claus, The Children’s Friend. Now the gift-giving saint arrived from the North in a sleigh with flying reindeer. This image along with a cute, didactic poem sealed Bishop Nicholas’ fate. Not only was Sante Claus in a sleigh with reindeer, but he arrived on Christmas Eve—not December sixth, and he arrived with a ghastly new idea: He now “had a list and was checking it twice.” He was “gonna find out who’s naughty or nice.” Put in the language of the 1821 poem, he had a ”long, black birchen rod . . . directs a Parent’s hand to use when virtue’s path his sons refuse.” His gifts were respectable and safe: “pretty doll . . . peg-top, or a ball; no crackers, cannons, squibs, or rockets to blow their eyes up, or their pockets. No drums to stun their Mother’s ear, nor swords to make their sisters fear; but pretty books to store their mind with knowledge of each various kind.”
Two years later the new St. Nicholas mythology was consolidated with the hugely popular poem A Visit from St. Nicholas, now known as The Night Before Christmas. The image was complete, for Santa was now…”
…dressed all in fur, from his head to his foot,
And his clothes were all tarnished with ashes and soot;
A bundle of toys he had flung on his back,
And he looked like a peddler just opening his pack.
His eyes—how they twinkled! his dimples how merry!
His cheeks were like roses, his nose like a cherry!
His droll little mouth was drawn up like a bow,
And the beard of his chin was as white as the snow;
The stump of a pipe he held tight in his teeth,
And the smoke it encircled his head like a wreath;
He had a broad face and a little round belly,
That shook, when he laughed like a bowlful of jelly.
He was chubby and plump, a right jolly old elf. . . .
Then in 1863 cartoonist Thomas Nast began a series of annual black-and-white drawings inspired by the poem. These drawings established a rotund Santa with flowing beard, fur garments, and an omnipresent clay pipe. Along with the image shift came a linguistic shift. The German “Sankt Niklaus” and the Dutch “Sinterklaas” became “Sancte Claus,” then “Santa Claus”.
By the 1920s well-known illustrators N.C. Wyeth and J.C. Leyendecker had jumped on the sleigh, producing lush, realistic portrayals of the red-suited, white-bearded, rotund elf, and by the 1930s Norman Rockwell picked up the tradition in his covers for The Saturday Evening Post. In 1931 artist Haddon Sundblom linked Santa with Coca-Cola Santa and for thirty-five years Santa was famous for refreshing his thirst with Coke before visiting another home in his endless Christmas Eve adventure. He thus became universal, appearing in advertisements everywhere. As a result the image of St. Nicholas became like the soda he was drinking: sweetly sentimental but with little nutritional value. The advertisers took it to the next level and soon Santa was the universal salesman—used to sell most anything at the end of the year.
Now that the link between Santa Claus and St. Nicholas is completely broken, it is a good time to rejuvenate the true celebration of St. Nicholas Day. No sense being a Scrooge about Santa. Let him be a jolly part of Christmas, but let us bring back St. Nicholas and remember this day in Advent as a reminder of the true spirit of St. Nicholas—a valiant defender of the faith, a tender-hearted lover of the poor and a kindly, generous soul who, in his kindness to children, saw that the true message of Christ’s nativity was that unless you become like a little child, you cannot enter the kingdom.
Books on the topic of this essay may be found in The Imaginative Conservative Bookstore.