Dutch and German immigrants brought St. Nicholas to America in the early 19th century, and he began a process of assimilation, trading in his bishop's miter and crosier for a fur-trimmed red suit and cap. The Santa we now know was the creation of poet Clement Clarke Moore (1779-1863), the author of "The Night Before Christmas"; cartoonist Thomas Nast; illustrators like N.C. Wyeth and Norman Rockwell; and the magazine ads for Coca-Cola painted by Haddon Simmons starting in 1931, in which Santa took a break from the arduousness of setting up junior's electric train by pausing to have a coke.
In "The Saint Who Would Be Santa Claus," Adam English, a religion professor at Campbell University in North Carolina, doesn't spend much time exploring the various practices and traditions associated with this festive figure. Rather, Mr. English is in search of the man himself. He notes that the real St. Nicholas — if he even existed — is obscured not only by the trappings of Santa Claus but by the layers of medieval folklore that had grown up around him in earlier centuries. In one legend, Nicholas miraculously brings back to life three boys whom an evil innkeeper has murdered, chopped into pieces and thrown into a pickle barrel — hence Nicholas became the patron saint of children.
Another favorite story, first told by the eighth-century monk Michael the Archimandrite, concerned a once-wealthy man who lost his fortune and decided to sell his three daughters into prostitution because he couldn't provide dowries. Nicholas, whose own parents had left him a large inheritance, sneaked up to the man's house in the dead of night and threw three bags of gold through the window, enabling the girls to find respectable husbands. He thus became the patron saint of spinsters and of pawnbrokers (for whom he became a "guarantor of payment"); the three balls on pawnshop signs are stylized versions of Nicholas's bags of gold. "In this endearing and enduring story, we see all the raw materials for the magical Santa Claus tale," Mr. English writes, "a mysterious night visitor who silently enters the home to bestow wonderful gifts to children." Mr. English notes that Nicholas gives from his own pocket, secretly, and with a purpose of encouraging moral behavior.
Nicholas of Myra is believed to have been born around 270 A.D. and died in 343. Unlike other church fathers, he left no writings, and the first mention of him dates from only the sixth century. In 325 he supposedly attended the Council of Nicaea, the gathering of churchmen that affirmed the divinity of Christ. There, according to legend, Nicholas was briefly imprisoned for slugging the heretic Arius in a fit of righteous rage. But the earliest lists of attendees don't mention a "Nicholas," and many historians of Christianity have concluded the saint never existed.
Mr. English nonetheless builds a convincing case that there really was a St. Nicholas. Around the middle of the fourth century, he points out, the name "Nicholas" (a combination of the Greek words for "victory" and "people"), hitherto virtually unknown in public records and ledgers and on tombstone inscriptions, suddenly became popular in Asia Minor and elsewhere. A still-extant tomb at Myra (modern Demre), a Mediterranean coastal town in southwestern Turkey, dates archaeologically to the right period. When the Seljuk Turks, who were Muslims, swept through western Asia Minor in 1087, Italian sailors transported the bones that were in the tomb to Bari, on the heel of Italy, where they are venerated to this day. The bones seem never to have been carbon-dated, but imaging tests conducted in 2004 revealed that they belonged to an elderly man who had suffered a broken jaw — perhaps as a result of that scuffle with Arius, or torture in the vicious persecution of Christians in the Roman Empire during the early fourth century.
Mr. English notes that Nicholas gives from his own pocket, secretly, and with a purpose of encouraging moral behavior.
On this hair-slender historical record, Mr. English attempts to reconstruct a biography of the historical Nicholas and uses data from the ancient world to argue that at least some of the legends that grew up around St. Nicholas might have been based on fact. He suggests that the story of the sisters saved from prostitution plausibly reflects fourth-century social realities. The practice of destitute or debt-ridden parents selling their offspring to brothels or slave-traders was so common that the Emperor Constantine made public funds available to families so that they wouldn't abandon their children.
The author seeks a historical basis for other St. Nicholas tales: his miraculous appearance aboard a foundering ship that guided it to safe harbor (an incident that made him the patron saint of sailors) and his intercession via a dream that prompted Constantine to spare the lives of three Roman military officers unjustly condemned to death. But while these stories might have some grounding in the perils of ancient sea travel or the vicissitudes of ancient justice, they reflect the devotion of the faithful toward a beloved holy man more than anything that might have actually occurred in fourth-century Myra.
In the end, the "true" St. Nicholas is as unknowable, and possibly as fictional, as a shopping-mall Santa. But does it matter? Whether historical, fantastical or a combination of both, he meant so much to those who revered him that he became forever associated with the gift of love that is Christmas. Today is a good day to eat a speculaas (the traditional St. Nick's Day cookie in the Netherlands and Belgium), or slip a pre-Christmas gift into our children's shoes — and consider just why we buy all those presents every December.
Reprinted with permission of the author and The Wall Street Journal © 2012 Dow Jones & Company, Inc. All rights reserved.
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