Just Who Was The Real St. Nicholas?

Dec 24, 2012
Originally published on December 26, 2012 10:40 am

If you celebrate Christmas, you may have found some presents under the tree, and you may believe those mysterious presents came from a jolly old man in a red suit.

He has a lot of names, including Santa Claus, Kris Kringle, Sinterklaas, Noel Baba, Popo Gigio — and of course — St. Nicholas. But believe it or not, St. Nicholas was a real man. He was a bishop, living in the 3rd century, in what's now modern-day Turkey.

Professor Adam English of Campbell University in North Carolina pieced together the life of St. Nicholas in his new book, The Saint Who Would Be Santa Claus: The True Life and Trials of Nicholas of Myra.

St. Nicholas oversaw a massive transition in the Christian faith, including participating in the Council of Nicaea — the first ecumenical council. Legend has it that he slapped a famous heretic with his sandal. English says the story isn't true, but his bones show that he had a broken nose.

"So perhaps he did have a violent past, or perhaps he did get into a scuffle or two in his lifetime," English tells NPR's Celeste Headlee. But there was one true story that somehow captured the imagination of Christians for centuries.

English says that as a young man, Nicholas had inherited a sum of money. Nicholas hears about a man in town with three daughters on the verge of destitution. So he bags up some gold, and in the middle of the night, anonymously tosses the bag through the window.

Nicholas repeats the act two more times so that the family could use the money as dowries for the daughters, English says. Later legend adds that the window was locked, so Nicholas drops the bag down the chimney, where it lands in a stocking waiting by the fire to dry.

By the twelfth century, English says, nuns in France were making little gifts, leaving them on the doorsteps of children, and signing them "from St. Nicholas."

None of this, however, was actually connected to Christmas or Christ's birth. St. Nicholas Day is celebrated on December 6th.

English says that Santa Claus was initially introduced into the American context in the early 19th century. It was a combination of the day's proximity to Christmas, and an effort by prominent New Yorkers to reclaim their European heritage.

"They were looking for roots, they were looking for traditions," English says. "They turn to their Dutch heritage, and to be Dutch is to celebrate Sinterklass — celebrate St. Nicholas."

Today's image of Santa Claus is very different than that of the original St. Nicholas of Myra. English says he loves the stories of the jolly old man, with rosy cheeks, and a hearty laugh. But he wants to challenge Americans to consider the true story behind St. Nicholas.

"To not only give gifts to our family, those that we love and those that we know," says English, "but to reach out beyond our family walls to those who we don't know, who we don't love, and to include them as well."

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This is TELL ME MORE from NPR News. I'm Celeste Headlee. Michel Martin is away. Coming up, Christians around the world are observing Christmas today. But what do families of other faiths do? We'll talk about that in just a few minutes. But first, if you do celebrate Christmas, you may have found some presents under the tree this morning, and you may or may not think those mysterious presents came from a jolly old man in a red suit.

Of course, he has a lot of names - just take it from a few of his movie appearances over the years.


FAIZON LOVE: (as Grimbel's manager) Tomorrow morning, 10:00 a.m., Santa's coming to town.

WILL FERRELL: (as Buddy) Santa! Oh, my God!


GENE LOCKHART: (as Judge Henry Harper) What is your name?

EDMUND GWENN: (as Kris Kringle) Kris Kringle.


LARRY BRANDENBURG: (as Detective Nunzio) Name?

TIM ALLEN: (as Scott Allen) Sinterklaas.

BRANDENBURG: (as Detective Nunzio) Name?

ALLEN: (as Scott Calvin) Pere Noel. Babbo Natale. Pelznickel. Topo Gigio.

HEADLEE: Those were scenes from the movies "Elf," "Miracle on 34th Street" and "The Santa Clause." Of course, St. Nicholas is one of those names. But believe it or not, St. Nicholas was a real man. He was canonized as a saint, and he was a bishop during the early days of Christianity in what's now modern day Turkey.

For those of you who are Santa believers, or if you have little believers at home, you may want to turn the radio down right now. But if you'd like the ho-ho-whole truth, a new book takes a look at the historical evidence for the life of St. Nicholas of Myra. It's called "The Saint Who Would Be Santa Claus." And author and Professor Adam English joins us now. Welcome.

ADAM ENGLISH: Thank you so much for having me.

HEADLEE: What a search you have been on. It couldn't have been easy to find any documentation whatsoever into the life of St. Nicholas of Myra. Tell us a little bit about him and what you discovered that's actually true about this man.

ENGLISH: St. Nicholas was born around the year 260 on the southern coast of what is now Turkey, up against the Mediterranean Sea there. And when he was born, Christianity was a persecuted minority, illegal religion. By the time of his death, it was not only legalized, but it was the favored religion of the empire itself.

So he oversaw a massive transition in the Christian faith. It's a massively important era of Christian history. He's known to perform works of generosity and also justice and civil service.

HEADLEE: As you say, he watched this massive change in his own faith. And how did he deal with it? I understand there's legends that he actually slapped a heretic. Do we even know if he was at the big Council of Nicaea for sure?

ENGLISH: He was definitely at one of the most important councils in church history, the Council of Nicaea in the year 325. There's a great legend about him slapping one of the arch-heretics, a man named Arius. Unfortunately, that legend is not true. But there's a great t-shirt that goes along with it, with Santa Claus holding some sandals and the caption reading: I've been sandal-slapped by Santa. But I would love it if that were true, but it's not - although one of the interesting findings of his bones, which are located in Italy, is a broken nose. And so perhaps he did have a violent past, or perhaps he did get in a scuffle or two in his lifetime.

HEADLEE: And over the course of these many centuries, his life story, what he meant, changed for different groups of people. You write, at first, he was the patron saint for sailors. But somehow, one story about his life that had to do with giving gifts really took hold of the popular imagination, and maybe this is the root of Santa Clause. Tell us this story.

ENGLISH: When Nicholas was a young man and not yet a bishop or a Christian pastor, he had inherited a sum of money from his deceased parents and heard of a plight of a man in town who had three daughters, and the man was on the doorstep of destitution. They were desperately poor, and the man was facing perhaps even selling his daughters off.

And so Nicholas decided to do something. He bags up some of that gold, and in the middle of the night, anonymously tosses the bag of gold through the window. And the money is used so that one of the daughters can marry. It's used a dowry, so she can escape this situation. Nicholas returns and repeats the act.

Later legend adds that Nicholas finds the window locked, and so drops the bag of gold down the chimney where it lands in a stocking that's hanging by the fire to dry. But it catches the imagination, so that by the 1100s in France, you have nuns making little gifts and leaving them on the doorsteps of children and signing them from St. Nicholas.

HEADLEE: Although it didn't happen on Christmas Eve, and it wasn't connected with Christ's birth, right?

ENGLISH: That's correct. St. Nicholas Day is celebrated on December 6th, although the Santa Claus traditions have pushed him on towards December 24th and 25th.

HEADLEE: If you're just joining us, my guest is Professor Adam English, author of the new book "The Saint Who Would Be Santa Claus." So explain to me, I mean, there were a lot of people who did extraordinary things. I'm sure there were many people over the centuries who may even have been involved with the church and given great gifts of generosity.

So how did this guy - eventually a bishop, living in Turkey in the third century - somehow transform into a jolly white guy in a red suit with white fur dropping presents, or himself, down chimneys, especially in the United States?

ENGLISH: St. Nicholas has always been an extremely popular saint throughout Europe and in Russia. The Santa Claus traditions, though, get started in the early 19th century, especially in New York. There are some prominent New York citizens - John Pintard, Washington Irving, those associated with the New York Historical Society - who were looking for roots. They were looking for traditions.

They turned to their Dutch heritage, and to be Dutch is to celebrate Sinterklaas, to celebrate St. Nicholas. And so they're, in a sense, recovering their Dutch heritage, but it's also very much a St. Nicholas heritage. So initially, St. Nicholas is reintroduced into the American context through that Dutch heritage and then morphs into, you know, what we think of as Santa Claus.

HEADLEE: Well, what do you think, Adam? I mean, what do you think of this tradition of - especially in the United States - of Santa Claus, a jolly fat guy with a house full of elves delivering presents and drinking Coca-Cola? I mean, is this sort of a disservice to the original saint?

ENGLISH: I love the Santa Clause traditions. I think what St. Nicholas adds or challenges us or enriches us in some ways is to not only give gifts to our family, to those that we love and those that we know, but to reach out beyond our family walls to those whom we don't know and those whom we don't love and to include them, as well.

So, I think incorporating St. Nicholas back into some Christmas traditions is a great way of broadening our perspective of gift-giving and the Santa Claus traditions.

HEADLEE: I understand, Professor English, that you have a daughter, a 10-year-old daughter?

ENGLISH: That's correct.

HEADLEE: And does she understand the cold, hard truth about Santa Claus?

ENGLISH: She does. We felt like early on, that we wanted to tell her St. Nicholas was, you know, the original Santa Claus, and that he is known for generosity and gift-giving, and that parents like to reenact that gift-giving today with their children. It does perhaps rob some of the magic of the holiday, but we felt like, in some ways, this is a richer story.

HEADLEE: Adam English is the author of the new book "The Saint Who Would Be Santa Claus." He's also an associate professor of theology and philosophy at Campbell University Divinity School, and he joined us in our studios in Washington, D.C. Thank you so much.

ENGLISH: It's great to be with you. Thank you so much.

HEADLEE: And Happy Holidays.

ENGLISH: Happy Holidays. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.