“The Real St. Nicholas & How He Became Santa”
Matthew 6:1-4
December 2021

“Beware of practicing your righteousness before other people in order to be seen by them, for then you will have no reward from your Father who is in heaven. Thus, when you give to the needy, sound no trumpet before you, as the hypocrites do in the synagogues and in the streets, that they may be praised by others. Truly, I say to you, they have received their reward. But when you give to the needy, do not let your left hand know what your right hand is doing, so that your giving may be in secret. And your Father who sees in secret will reward you.” – Matthew 6:1-4

In the September 21, 1897, edition of The (New York) Sun, there was an editorial (titled “Is There a Santa Claus?”) that contained a famous line that has since become part of popular Christmas folklore. It is the most reprinted newspaper editorial in the English language. For in that editorial, Francis Church replied to an eight-year-old girl’s letter with this famous declaration: “Yes Virginia, there is a Santa Claus.”[1]
 
Well, there is the myth, but before the myth, there was a man. So I want to declare about the man that, “Yes Virginia, there was a real Saint Nicholas.” He was a historical person. He became a Bishop and was a pastor in what is now Turkey. In fact, he became the most popular Greek Orthodox Saint, equivalent to St. Patrick in Irish history or St. Peter in Roman Catholic tradition. One of the biggest reasons was his generosity to people in need and his role in the tradition of gift giving. So here is the history of St. Nicholas and how this person in history became the legend we know today as Santa Claus.

I. HISTORY OF ST. NICHOLAS

Greek Orthodox tradition tells of Saint Nicholas being born around AD 280 in Patara, in the region of Lycia (on the south coast of the Asia Minor peninsula—present day Turkey). He was the only son of pious parents Theophanes and Nonna, who had vowed to dedicate him to God. Named after his uncle who was the Bishop of Patara, Nicholas thrived on the study of Scripture as a student. By day he would spend his time at church reading the Bible and by night he prayed and studied even more. Bishop Nicholas of Patara eventually ordained him a Scripture reader in church, and then elevated Nicholas to the priesthood, making him his assistant and entrusting him to instruct the flock.[2]

When his parents died in a plague, Nicholas inherited their considerable wealth. Nicholas generously gave to the poor, but he did so anonymously, as he wanted the glory to go to God. This was at a time when a pietist-monastic movement spread through Christianity, where Christians would give away all their money and possessions to live in a cave or join a monastery.

One notable incident that occurred during this time in Nicholas’ life was when a merchant in his town had gone bankrupt. The creditors threatened to take not only his house and property, but also his children. The merchant had three daughters. He knew if they were taken it would probably mean a life of forced marriage, or worse still sex-trafficking and prostitution. The merchant had the idea of quickly marrying off his daughters so the creditors could not take them. Unfortunately, he did not have money for a dowry, which was needed in that area of the world for a legally recognized wedding.
           
Young Nicholas heard of the broke merchant’s dilemma and, late one night around midnight, he threw a bag of money in the window for the oldest daughter’s dowry. According to legend, the bag of money landed either in a shoe or in a stocking that was drying by the fireplace. Well, this generous gift by this anonymous giver was the talk of the town when the first daughter got married. Everybody wondered who the giver was.

But Nicholas wasn’t “one and done.” Late one night, he threw a bag of money in the window for the second daughter, and then she was able to get married. Expecting money for his third daughter, the merchant waited up until late at night every night. And when Nicholas sneaked up to the window to throw the money in, the father ran outside and caught him. Nicholas made him promise not to tell where the money came from, as he wanted the credit to go to God alone.[3] This was the origin of secret, midnight gift-giving and hanging stockings by the fireplace on the anniversary of Saint Nicholas’ death, which was December 6, 343 AD.
           
The three bags of money which Nicholas threw into the house are remembered by the three gold balls hung outside of pawnbroker shops—as they present themselves as rescuing families in their time of financial need (not sure about some of the motives, but that is what is said). As a result, Nicholas became considered the “patron saint” of pawnbrokers.
           
Anyway, after giving away all his money, Nicholas went on a pilgrimage to the Holy Land where he intended to join the secluded Monastery of Sion. Before he made his final commitment to join, the Lord spoke to him in a dream: “Nicholas, this is not the vineyard where you shall bear fruit for Me. Return to the world, and glorify My Name there.” So he decided to go back to Asia Minor (modern Turkey), but not before first visiting the birthplace of Jesus in Bethlehem.

Mark Twain wrote in The Innocence Abroad (1869) of visiting the Church of the Nativity: “This spot where the very first ‘Merry Christmas!’ was uttered in all the world, and from whence the friend of my childhood, Santa Claus, departed on his first journey, to gladden and continue to gladden roaring firesides on wintry mornings in many a distant land forever and forever.”[4]
           
Nicholas returned to the southern coast of Asia Minor, to the busy Mediterranean port city of Myra. Unbeknownst to him, the Bishop had just died and the church leaders could not decide who was to be their next church Bishop of Myra. One of the church leaders had a dream that the first person to church the next day would be named “Nicholas” and that he was to be their next Bishop. As his habit was, Nicholas fasted all night and was the first person to church the next day. The church leaders told him of the dream and that he was to be their next Bishop. Nicholas was hesitant to accept, as the Roman Emperor was arresting bishops and killing them. He finally relented and became the Bishop of Myra.[5]

Soon after, Nicholas was arrested and imprisoned at some point during the persecution perpetrated by Emperor Galerius, who continued the persecution of Diocletian (who had abdicated the throne in 305 AD), but Galerius was struck with an intestinal disease and died in 311 AD. With no emperor, the Roman Empire was thrown into confusion. The four major generals decided to fight it out as to who would be the next emperor. General Constantine was in York, Britain, when he received the news and marched toward Rome to fight for the title of Caesar. The day before the Battle of the Milvian Bridge on October 28, 312 AD, Constantine reportedly saw the sign of Christ in the sky. The sign of Christ was the first two letters of the Greek name “Christ.” Constantine put the “XP,” the “Chi-Rho,” on all his military banners and after his victory, he ended the persecution of Christians with the Edict of Milan in 313 AD—the first time in history that Christians were not persecuted by the Roman government.[6] Over the centuries, the sign of Christ was shortened to just the “Chi” or “X.” This is the origin of “X-mas.”

It was during the reign of Emperor Constantine that Nicholas was let out of prison. Now that it was legal to be a Christian, he preached publicly against pagan idolatry and its excesses of sexual immorality. He condemned the worship of the fertility goddess Artemis or Diana, whose temple was nearby, just as the Apostle Paul did in Acts 19. The Temple to Diana at Ephesus was one of the Seven Wonders of the Ancient World, twice as big as the Parthenon in Athens, having 127 huge pillars—and temple prostitutes. It was the Las Vegas of the Mediterranean world.

Nicholas’ fire and brimstone preaching led the people of Myra to tear down their local temple to Diana, and shortly thereafter, through the preaching of St. John Chrysostom, Archbishop of Constantinople (AD 397-403), the people tore down the enormous temple to Diana at Ephesus. During this time, the Greek Olympics were also ended, which were considered pagan, as they competed naked. Nicholas also preached against divination (fortune telling through examining animal entrails-forbidden by the OT), human sacrifice, and exposure of unwanted infants, which was the Roman equivalent of abortion.

Then the first major heresy in church history began. Arius, a pastor in Alexandria, Egypt, held the belief that Jesus Christ is the Son of God who was begotten by God the Father at a point in time, thus created by the Father and distinct from the Father and therefore subordinate to him, but that the Son is also a God. Arius stated: “If the Father begat the Son, then he who was begotten had a beginning in existence, and from this it follows there was a time when the Son was not.”[7] Another church leader in Alexandria, Athanasius, insisted Jesus as God the Son was co-equal, co-eternal, and co-sovereign with God the Father and that there was never a time that the Son was not, just as the Gospel of John 1:1-4 declares.[8]

Well, the heresy not only split the church in Alexandria, but ultimately the whole Roman Empire. To settle it, Emperor Constantine ordered all the bishops to come to Nicea in 325 AD. It was the first recorded time outside the New Testament era (see Acts 15) that all the bishops throughout the known world met together to convene and settle this doctrinal question about the nature of Christ and the doctrine of the Trinity.[9] The result was the Nicaean Creed, which declares:

We believe in one God, the Father Almighty, Maker of all things visible and invisible. And in one Lord Jesus Christ, the Son of God, begotten of the Father [the only-begotten; that is, of the essence of the Father, God of God,] Light of Light, very God of very God, begotten, not made, being of one substance with the Father; By whom all things were made [both in heaven and on earth]; Who for us men, and for our salvation, came down and was incarnate and was made man; He suffered, and the third day he rose again, ascended into heaven; From thence he shall come to judge the quick and the dead.[10]

Among the 300 present was allegedly Nicholas, Bishop of Myra, though his name is not on any list. Tradition is that Nicholas was so upset at Arius for his unbiblical beliefs that he got up from his seat, strode over to Arius, and slapped him across the face. Some say he punched Arius and knocked him to the floor. That led to Nicholas being defrocked and thrown in jail by Emperor Constantine for a night. Conjecture is that Nicholas’ rash action led to him being excluded from the list of leaders. Regardless, the story is told that Nicholas was released the next day and restored as Bishop of Myra.[11] As legend would have it, Jolly Old St. Nick had a hot temper when it came to heresy!

Not only did Bishop Nicholas confront heretics, but also corrupt government politicians. He had an encounter with a Roman governor, who had falsely accused some innocent soldiers in order to cover up his immoral acts, and was about to have them executed. When Nicholas heard of it, he rushed down and broke through the crowd. He grabbed the executioner’s sword and threw it down, and then publicly revealed, by the power of the Holy Spirit, what evil the governor had done. The governor, realizing that Nicholas had no way of knowing the details except by divine insight from God, fell on his knees and begged Nicholas to pray for him.[12]

Greek Orthodox tradition attributes many miraculous answers to St. Nicholas’ prayers, including calming stormy seas for sailors and multiplying grain for the hungry. He had a long successful ministry and, on his deathbed, his last words were from Psalm 11: “In the Lord I put my trust.” The traditional date of Nicholas’s death is December 6, 343 AD.[13]

In the 5th century, a church was built in Myra in his honor. When it was damaged in an earthquake in 529 AD, Emperor Justinian rebuilt it. In 988 AD, Vladimir the Great of Russia converted to Eastern Orthodox Christianity and adopted Nicholas as the “patron saint” of Russia. In the 11th century, Muslim jihad terrorists, the Seljuks Turks, invaded Asia Minor, killing Christians and destroying churches. They also demolished and desecrated the graves of Christian saints. Islamic Hadith Sahih Muslim (Book 4, No. 2115) states: “Do not leave an image without obliterating it, or a high grave without leveling it.” In a panic, Christians shipped the remains of St. Nicholas to the town of Bari on the southern coast of Italy in the year 1087. Pope Urban II dedicated the church, naming it after St. Nicholas—Basilica di San Nicola de Bari. This officially introduced the Greek St. Nicholas to Western Europe.[14]

So many Greek Christians continued to flee the Muslim invasion that Pope Urban II went to the Council of Claremont in 1095 and called upon European monarchs to send help. Europe sent help—it was called the First Crusade. In a backwards sense, Western Europe might not have had the benefit of becoming acquainted with the traditions about St. Nicholas if it had not been for Islamic jihadists invading Eastern Europe.

II. HOW DID ST. NICHOLAS BECOME SANTA CLAUS?

With St. Nicholas’ remains now in Italy, western Europeans quickly embraced the gift-giving traditions associated with him. By 1223, so much attention was being given to gift-giving during the Christmas season that Saint Francis of Assisi wanted to refocus the attention to the birth of Christ. St. Francis created the first “creche” or nativity scene, a humble manger surrounded by farm animals with the focus being on Joseph, Mary, and baby Jesus. St. Francis wanted to take people back to the Gospel: “And the Word became flesh and dwelt among us” (John 1:14).

In 1517, Martin Luther began the Reformation, which effectively ended the popular “St. Nicholas Day” in many Protestant countries, as “saints days” were considered a distraction from Christ. Since Germans liked the gift-giving, Martin Luther moved the giving to December 25th to emphasize that all gifts come from the Christ Child. The German pronunciation of Christ Child was “Christkindl,” which over the centuries became pronounced “Kris Kringle.”[15]

Part of the St. Nicholas legend grew out of the prophecy in Rev. 19 about Jesus’ triumphant return at the end of the world to judge the living and the dead, riding a white horse, and the saints would return with him, riding white horses (Revelation 19:11-16). As Nicholas was a saint, the reasoning is that he would certainly be one of the multitude returning with Jesus, his robe red with blood, riding a white horse. The story became embellished with St. Nicholas coming back once a year for a sort of mini pre-Judgement Day, to check up on the children to see if they are on the right track. Over the centuries, the story evolved. The New Jerusalem, the Celestial City, became the North Pole. In Scandinavia there were no horses, so they have St. Nicholas riding a reindeer. The Lamb’s Book of Life and Book of Works turned into the Book of the “naughty and nice.” The angels became elves. And of course, St. Nicholas was eventually dressed in red.[16]

In England during Henry VIII’s reign, Christmas celebrations became sort of a bawdy Mardi Gras—what was originally a religious day had devolved into a time of drunkenness and revelry.[17] When Puritans took over England, beginning in 1642, they outlawed Christmas as being too worldly. When Puritans settled in America, founding the Massachusetts Bay Colony, they had a five shilling fine for anyone caught celebrating Christmas. Puritan leader, Rev. Cotton Mather (1663-1728), told his congregation on December 25, 1712:

Can you in your Conscience think, that our Holy Savior is honored, by Mad Mirth, by long Eating, by hard Drinking, by lewd Gaming, by rude Reveling; by a Mass fit for none but a Saturn or a Bacchus, or the Night of a Mahometan Ramadan? You cannot possibly think so![18]

But the Dutch loved Christmas and St. Nicholas. The Dutch holiday tradition is that St. Nicholas comes once a year to give presents to good children. But the naughty children had something else to look forward to. St. Nicholas is accompanied by a Moorish costumed helper, Zwarte Piet, who would put naughty children into gunny sacks to take back to Spain where they would be sold into Muslim slavery.[19]

Beginning in 1624, Dutch immigrants brought St. Nicholas traditions to New Amsterdam, which became New York City in 1664. The Dutch called Saint Nicholas “Sant Nikolaus,” which became corrupted as “Sinter Klass,” which eventually became pronounced “Santa Claus.”[20]

Living in New York was Washington Irving, the author of The Legend of Sleepy Hallow and Rip Van Winkle. He coined the name for New York as “Gotham City.” Irving also wrote Diedrich Knickerbocker’s A History of New York (1809) in which he described St. Nicholas visiting once a year, but no longer wearing a bishop’s outfit, but a typical Dutch outfit of long-trunk hose, leather belt, boots, and a stocking hat.[21]

Clement Moore was a Hebrew professor in New York at the General Theological Seminary of the Protestant Episcopal Church, which was built on land donated by his family in the neighborhood of Chelsea. Clement Clarke Moore Park is located in New York City at the corner of 10th Avenue and 22nd Street. He helped Trinity Church establish a new church on Hudson Street—St. Luke in the Fields. In 1823, Clement Moore wrote a poem for his six children titled “A Visit From St. Nicholas”:

‘TWAS the night before Christmas, when all through the house
 Not a creature was stirring, not even a mouse;
 The stockings were hung by the chimney with care,
 In hopes that ST. NICHOLAS soon would be there ...”
 “When, what to my wondering eyes should appear,
 But a miniature sleigh, and eight tiny reindeer,
 With a little old driver, so lively and quick,
 I knew in a moment it must be ST. NICK ...”
 “So up to the house-top the coursers they flew,
 With the sleigh full of Toys, and ST. NICHOLAS too ...”
 “As I drew in my head, and was turning around,
 Down the chimney ST. NICHOLAS came with a bound ...”

Clement Moore described St. Nicholas as smaller in order to fit through a chimney:

“He was chubby and plump, a right jolly old elf,
 And I laughed when I saw him, in spite of myself.”[22]

During the Civil War, Harper’s Weekly Magazine had an illustrator named Thomas Nast, famous for creating the Republican elephant and Democrat mule in his political cartoons. Nast drew St. Nicholas visiting Union troops with a “North Pole” sign behind St. Nick as a political jab at the Confederate South.[23]

In the early 1900s, Haddon Sundblom was an artist famous for his creation of the Quaker Oats man and Aunt Jemima Syrup. In 1930, Coca-Cola hired Sundblom to create a painting of Santa Claus drinking Coke, which he did annually for the next 33 years. With Coca-Cola pioneering mass-marketing to become the most well-known trademark name in the world, Sundblom’s version of Santa Claus became the most recognizable.[24]

Though much has been added on to the story throughout the centuries, underneath it all, there was a godly, courageous Christian Bishop named Nicholas, who lived in 4th century Asia Minor, and who:

  • Loved Jesus to the point of giving his life to serve as a minister;
  • Was persecuted and imprisoned by the Roman government for his Christian faith;
  • Stood for the doctrine of the Trinity; that Jesus was fully God and fully man;
  • Preached against sexually immoral pagan temples and confronted corrupt politicians; and
  • Was very generous, giving anonymously to those in need!

St. Nicholas reportedly said these words: “The giver of every good and perfect gift has called upon us to mimic His giving, by grace, through faith, and this is not of ourselves.”[25] What a model for us as Christ followers this Christmas!
 
[1] “‘YES, VIRGINIA, THERE IS A SANTA CLAUS’,” Newseum, accessed December 14, 2021, https://www.newseum.org/exhibits/online/yes-virginia-there-is-a-santa-claus/.
[2] William Federer, There Really Is a Santa Claus: The History of Saint Nicholas & Christmas Holiday Traditions (St. Louis: Americsearch, 2012), 13-15.
[3] Ibid., 15-17.
[4] Samuel L. Clemens/Mark Twain, The Innocents Abroad or the New Pilgrim’s Progress, 2 vols., (New York: Harper & Brothers, 1869), 2:384.
[5] Federer, 25-27.
[6] “Battle of Milvian Bridge,” Encyclopedia Britannica, accessed December 14, 2021, https://www.britannica.com/topic/Battle-of-the-Milvian-Bridge.
[7] “Arianism,” Wikipedia, accessed December 14, 2021, https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Arianism.
[8] “Athanasius of Alexandria,” Wikipedia, accessed December 14, 2021, https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Athanasius_of_Alexandria.
[9] “First Council of Nicaea,” Wikipedia, accessed December 14, 2021, https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/First_Council_of_Nicaea.
[10] “Nicene Creed,” Wikipedia, accessed December 14, 2021, https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Nicene_Creed.
[11] “Bishop Nicholas Loses His Cool (At The Council of Nicaea),” St. Nicholas Center, accessed December 14, 2021, https://www.stnicholascenter.org/who-is-st-nicholas/stories-legends/traditional-stories/life-of-nicholas/bishop-nicholas-loses-his-cool.
[12] Federer, 43-47.
[13] Ibid., 61.
[14] Ibid., 71-75.
[15] Ibid., 99-101.
[16] Ibid., 79-85.
[17] Ibid., 101-03.
[18] “Grace Defended. On the Twenty-fifth of December, 1712. BOSTON-Lecture,” Evans Early American Imprint Collection, accessed December 14, 2021, https://quod.lib.umich.edu/e/evans/N01303.0001.001/1:2?rgn=div1;view=fulltext.
[19] Federer, 89.
[20] Ibid., 119.
[21] Ibid., 129--33.
[22] Ibid., 135-45.
[23] Ibid., 145.
[24] Ibid., 147.
[25] “St. Nicholas Day Quotes and Prayers,” Xavier University, accessed December 14, 2021, https://www.xavier.edu/jesuitresource/online-resources/quote-archive1/st-nicholas-quotes.