Santa Claus was Greek. That’s the first thing we need to get straight. Santa Claus was an Orthodox Bishop. Santa Claus came from Asia Minor, not the North Pole. And his real name is Saint Nicholas.
What follows is the true story of Saint Nicholas, concluding with the bizarre tale of how the modern world has tried to turn our holy saint into a myth – first into a tiny Norse elf, then into the mysterious wonderful Santa Claus who brought gifts by night, and then into a fat jolly purveyor of Coca Coca, and finally into a used car salesman with a fake beard – and why they won’t get away with it. We’ll get to all that in Part 2.
Bishop Nicholas of Myra
Let’s begin at the beginning. It is certain that during the early fourth century there was a holy bishop named Nicholas in Myra, a seaport on the south coast of Asia Minor (modern Turkey), who died on December 6. How do we know that? Because the Church’s way of honoring holy men and women has always been to celebrate the Divine Liturgy on the day of their death. And in Myra a Bishop Nicholas has always been remembered in that way on December 6, as he is now so honored all over the Orthodox world. Asia Minor was then culturally and linguistically Greek. A substantial Greek Orthodox community remained in Lycia till the 1920s.
The stories told about Saint Nicholas’ life are not documented history. They are not like the Gospels which were written during the lifetime of many who knew Jesus personally, so that if there were major errors they would have been corrected. So far as we can tell, no one who knew Bishop Nicholas wrote about him. Written accounts about him first appear centuries after he lived. So don’t take the stories about him for more than they are – or any less than they are, for they speak of the character of this man who left so profound an impression on his people that they remembered him ever after as a saint, as holy. In any event, the most important history of Saint Nicholas took place after he died, for like many saints he has done his best work after his life on earth. We’ll get to that in a moment. But for now, here are some of the stories that came to be told about Saint Nicholas.
They said that Nicholas was born to Christian parents in the city of Patara, inland from Myra, and that he was named after his uncle Nicholas who was Bishop of Patara. It was told that even as a baby he refused to nurse on Orthodox fast days, Wednesdays and Fridays. (If that seems extremely unlikely, consider that the same is told about the infancy of certain twentieth century Greek elders.)
Here’s the story about how Nicholas became Bishop of Myra. Young Nicholas had been made a priest. The Bishop of Myra died and the elders were deadlocked about who should replace him. Then one of them dreamt that the first man who came to the earliest service (Orthros/Matins) the following Sunday should be their bishop. Father Nicholas was visiting Myra and, being devout, showed up early, and they all said, “Yes, Nicholas will be our bishop”. There may well be more to the story than that. Rarely are men chosen to be bishops unless they already have an established reputation.
There are many stories about the character of Nicholas. Some may have taken place before he became a bishop or even after his death. To repeat: Can they be documented? No. Have they been elaborated over the years? Almost certainly, for there have long been somewhat different versions of them in circulation. But they all speak of his mercy and charity and Orthodox faith, the power of his prayers and the strength of his personality. That is what his people remembered about him.
There is the story of three girls whose father was so poor he had no money for their dowries, so that they had no choice but to sell themselves into prostitution lest they starve. But when each came of age, a bag of gold for her dowry was found on the floor in the morning. In the third case, the father kept watch and caught Nicholas throwing the gold in the window. The point of the story? Bishop Nicholas was generous and gave gifts secretly. Orthodox believe he still does – and I’m not talking about the Santa Claus myth. (Sometime I’ll tell the full account of how he founded Saint Nicholas Church in Cedarburg. Part of the story is way back in Blog Post 3.)
There is the strange story about three boys who had been abducted by an innkeeper who put their bodies in a pickle barrel, of all things. Nicholas somehow knew where to find them and rescued them and restored them to life. People remembered that Nicholas worked wonders, and how he cared about children. He became their patron. The Church still titles him Saint Nicholas the Wonderworker.
It was told that Nicholas once traveled by ship to the Holy Land, and when a great storm came up people begged him to pray. Immediately the storm ceased. In Myra when people went to sea they always asked their Bishop Nicholas to pray for them, as Orthodox sailors and travelers still do. He became the patron of navy men and travelers, especially those who sail by sea.
There is a story about three soldiers (some say generals) from Myra who had been falsely accused of treason and sentenced to death. Bishop Nicholas went to the governor Avlavios to intervene but to no avail, so he appeared in a dream by night to the new Christian Emperor Constantine, scaring the wits out of him and threatening him with hellfire if he did not release the three men, which he did. Nicholas loved and protected his people, and he had mysterious powers.
It was told that there was a famine in Myra, and the captain of a ship carrying grain out on the Mediterranean dreamt of a bishop who appeared and commanded him to divert his ship to Myra. When he arrived bringing food for the people, he saw Bishop Nicholas and recognized the man he had seen in his dream. Certain saints, even in the 20th century, have had this power to appear in 2 places at once.
A story tells of Bishop Nicholas attending the First Ecumenical Council in Nicaea in 325. When the heretic Arius stood up and began to sing his pop songs about Christ, how “there was a time when he was not”, Nicholas was so outraged that he “lost it” and went up and punched Arius, and got himself thrown out of the Council and forbidden to serve as bishop for some time. Some say the Theotokos appeared to restore him. That could explain why the records of the Council of Nicaea do not list Nicholas of Myra attending, even though he lived not far away. Perhaps. The point is that Nicholas was zealous in the faith. This story has given rise to many interesting pictures – and also to a very, uh…, “memorable” Saint Nicholas Day pageant at Saint Nicholas, Cedarburg! Or if you prefer here is a less reverent modern version.
All these stories point to the character of Bishop Nicholas, how he was remembered by those who loved him.
In various places he has also (for reasons I can’t explain) become patron saint of archers, repentant thieves, brewers, pawnbrokers, students – and prostitutes! maybe so he can save them from their trade?
Saint Nicholas’ work after his death
What happened next is documentable: After old Bishop Nicholas died, his body began to exude a sweet smelling fragrant liquid – usually called myrrh, because no one knows what it actually is. People at the time made a pun about “myrrh from Myra”. (Here again, a number of other Orthodox saints have also been “myrrh-streaming”.) It gathered in his tomb and had healing qualities. This also might sound like superstition, except that it is still happening. His incorrupt body continues to exude a sweet-smelling fragrant liquid. I’ll say more about this in part 2 of this article. Above is Nicholas’ original tomb in Myra. Below is Saint Nicholas Church in Myra – no longer in use, Turkey being what it is.
Also there began to be miracles elsewhere. During his lifetime it was natural for Nicholas’ people to ask, “Bishop Nicholas, pray for us”. After Nicholas’ death it was equally natural for people to keep asking for his prayers. (We Orthodox ask the intercession of those we love and of those whose prayers we feel to be powerful, both before and after their deaths.) And after his death, when people asked, “Holy Nicholas, pray for us”, things began to happen. The sick were healed. People came in claiming they had seen him, that he had spoken with them – sometimes in dreams, sometimes when they were awake. A ship sailing towards Myra ran into another storm, and when people cried, “Holy Nicholas pray for us, save us”, again the storm stopped. That is often pictured in icons of Saint Nicholas, with the saint appearing from heaven in a cloud near the storm-tossed ship – as in our well-worn and much kissed icon at the entrance to Saint Nicholas Church, Cedarburg. Myra quickly became a place of pilgrimage and remained so for many centuries.
And so Saint Nicholas’ reputation grew – not because of official Church decree but by word of mouth. Devotion to him spread throughout the eastern Mediterranean, and then north and west, and miracles attributed to Saint Nicholas began to happen in many places. From all over the Christian world, from every century, there are stories of his appearances, his healings and other miracles. (Someday in yet another article I’ll tell you more about “The Miracles of Saint Nicholas”.)
Over the centuries, Nicholas has become the second most popular saint in the world, next only to the Lord’s Mother. More churches are named after him in Russia and England than any other saint. Orthodox icons still picture him as he was. He looks the same in all of them: an old bishop with a beard, dressed in red bishop’s vestments, carrying a Gospel book. December 6 is a major feast in the Orthodox Church, and is on the calendars of the Roman Catholic Church and the Anglican Churches.
Next Week: Go West, Saint Nicholas, Go West – and how America tried to turn him into a myth.