December 6th! St Nicholas’ Day! Traditionally the day of present-giving in many countries to this day, leaving Christmas for church or family or turkey dinners or what have you. But for many, THIS is the big one.
So as a present from my book Hark! The Biography of Christmas, here’s all you need to know about the St Nicholas, before the Santa Claus…
Nikolaos, to give his Greek name, was born in around 270 to wealthy Greek parents in the busy Mediterranean port town of Patara, living along the coast in Myra in Lycia. Yes, Nicholas began life, like Christmas stuffing, in Turkey.
One story tells that as a newborn, he stood up on the altar for several hours, raising hands heavenwards as if in prayer. Another legend holds that even as a baby, he abstained from breastfeeding for the traditional two fasting days each week (the original 5:2 plan). When he did feed, it was only ever from the right breast, so loyal to God’s right hand was the infant Nicholas.
More historically reported is the early demise of his parents after an epidemic, so the boy moved in with his uncle the bishop, and trained under him as a priest. Nicholas became Bishop of Myra, and attended the Council of Nicaea: crucial in the establishment of the early Christian church. Emperor Constantine invited 1,800 bishops; only 300 bishops attended. One attendee was also a man called Arius who believed that Jesus was created by God, therefore subordinate to Him. Nicholas was so vehemently anti-Arian that it’s said he punched Arius in the face. One legend has it that his peers were so shocked they instantly called for his dismissal as bishop – till Jesus and Mary appeared as visions alongside him, and the bishops for some reason thought better of it and awkwardly consulted their minutes.
With no family that we know of, Nicholas had little use for money he’d inherited, instead opting to give much away to those in need. Word reached Nicholas of a local widower with three daughters, poor business sense, and very little money. Nicholas’ fortunate circumstances were down to his parents’ good investments, so he was inclined to help the man. The fellow needed a dowry to pay for each daughter to be married and their futures secured. Failing that, slavery or prostitution were the only options left.
Nicholas waited till dark and threw a bag of gold through a downstairs window of the house – for the eldest daughter. He repeated his trick for the other daughters, till he was caught by the father. Nicholas swore him to secrecy over his identity as the mystery benefactor, not wanting the world to latch onto his free payouts, but the father couldn’t restrain his gratitude and spread word of Nicholas’ generosity – and presumably his mean aim at basketball.
Nicholas died on December 6th, 343 AD. Tales quickly spread of his generosity. One story had him stopping at an inn to discover that the innkeeper had been slaughtering boys and pickling them in brine, to sell on as ham. Nicholas not only saved three boys but actually reassembled them after the innkeeper’s butchering… according to the legend.
The miraculous tales ensure Nicholas’ sainthood. One had him being rewarded in Jerusalem by the church doors of the Room of the Last Supper; they swung open to greet him as he approached, in possibly the world’s first recorded automatic door.
Nicholas’ tomb became a shrine, particularly to sailors, who took him as their patron saint. They took his tales across the Mediterranean, particularly to Italy, who craved his bones for their shrines. Then to the Netherlands, where nearly 2,000 years on, ‘Sinterklaas’ is still celebrated on December 6th in a big way, with his arrival by sea from, apparently, Spain. Other countries adore him too; in Russia there’s an expression: “If God dies, at least we’ll still have St Nicholas.”
In Northern Europe, St Nicholas’ legends merged with Norse worship of other bearded folk like Odin and Thor. Merging with Odin over time, Nicholas was pictured with full beard and bishop’s robe, flying through the sky on a horse as Odin did.
When the Dutch settlers reached New Amsterdam, which then became New York, they brought the stories with them. Writers like Washington Irving perpetuated their myths, still with generosity and a care for children at the heart of the stories. So children’s books cottoned on, and printed pictures and stories like this:
…where he sat alongside pics of his delivered stockings, complete with birch sticks for whipping children who hadn’t learnt their prayers. Nice. Or naughty. And once Clement Clarke Moore wrote ‘A Visit from St Nicholas’ for his children the day before Christmas Eve 1822 (too late to buy a present, I’m sure), St Nicholas’ future was set. Like jelly. Like a bowful of jelly.
All this and more is in Hark! The Biography of Christmas. You knew that.
Happy St Nicholas’ Day!