This Dec. 1, I was witness to a peculiar ritual no doubt occurring in many of your own hometowns around this time of year. Much of the town gathered around a large pine tree, moving around to keep themselves warm in moist, cold New England air. Suddenly from down the street, there was a wailing of sirens for which everyone cheered. This was no medical emergency in bound, but rather a pale, white man with a silver beard decked out in red velvet and ringing a bell with the conviction others would save for their day jobs.
Escorted by the town’s fire brigade, the very face of Santa Claus brought delight to the many assembled children as he switched on the tree’s lights. Here was St. Nicholas at last, back from the North Pole to ensure the children of the world that their materialistic yearnings would once again be satisfied on the 25th of December.
Nicholas falls into that classification of historical characters of whom we know quite little about, inferring much of his life from what others testified to later.
What we do know is that Nicholas was born sometime around the last quarter of the third century and would die shortly before the second half of the fourth century. He lived in what is modern-day Turkey, in those days populated primarily by Greek-speaking peoples. He would become the bishop of the town of Myra, in the far southwest of the contemporary nation. During the saint’s time on earth, he would become known for many miracles, though any documents from the time of his actual life have been lost to time and the general chaos the Roman Empire found itself in at that time.
By the sixth century, he was already a popular saint within the borders of the Byzantine Empire, and his veneration would soon spread into western and northern Europe in the following centuries, being a common place and popular saint by the High Middle Ages (roughly 1000–1300).
Many miracles and pious action ascribed to him concern his generosity and benevolence, in particular a tale of how, in an effort to save three young women from being sold into prostitution, he secretly left three bags of gold at their father’s house, providing enough for the girls a proper dowry and allowing them to be married instead.
Likewise, during the medieval period, a story emerged that, when St. Nicholas was at the Council of Nicaea, he became so enraged at the heresiarch Arius that he punched the heretic in the face. Whether or not this actually happened is historically dubious. In addition to his reputation as having no chill when it came to heresy, Nicholas’ medieval iconography also tended to feature him with children, providing him with a connotation of being their protector and caretaker.
In the medieval period, a popular story concerning St. Nicholas was that, during a famine, a wicked butcher murdered three children and, having pickled their flesh, intended to pass the meat off as something else and sell it to the hungry. Nicholas, seeing through this masquerade, made the sign of the cross over the pickled children, and brought them back to life. This story was so popular in the Middle Ages that the children began appearing in his iconography, forever linking the saint with the protection and love of children.
On St. Nicholas’ feast day of Dec. 6, the act of gift giving was a well-established tradition. However, once the Protestant Reformation kicked in, the celebration of saints as a whole began to decline in those regions of Europe which had broken away from the true faith. As a result of this, the popular act of gift giving in December was moved to Christmas, where the baby Jesus brought presents instead. While reverence for St. Nicholas persisted in the Catholic world, it was ultimately Protestants who established the colonies which would go on to form the United States.
Among the English who settled the 13 colonies, another tradition which emerged in the wake of the Protestant Reformation was Father Christmas, who, in lieu of St. Nicholas, came to embody the Christmas season. This tradition lingered in the United States following independence, and gradually merged with the popular image of St. Nicholas (gift giver and protector of children) to produce a new figure of Christmas, Santa Claus. An anglicization of the Dutch Sinter Klaas, a Father Christmas-like figure known among Dutch Americans at the time, this new iteration was divested of any religious connotations, and existed solely as an embodiment of the new meaning of the holiday.
It was only a matter of time before corporations began to latch onto this new emblem of the holidays, our capitalist economy coming to depend more and more on those pivotal few weeks between late November and Jan. 1. The feast of St. Nicholas has fallen further and further into obscurity as the birth of Christ — or rather the consumption-based holiday which has taken its place in the American mythos — has supplanted the day we commemorate the great gift-giving saint.
It’s a pity because the life of this saint is intriguing and worthy of understanding by Catholics. While Jesus is after all the reason for the season, its traditions of gift giving and its orientation toward children ultimately has its roots in the person of St. Nicholas. Perhaps it may be better, both for the salvation of Christmas from commercialism and for the reverence of one of our finest saints, to return to venerating Nicholas on his well-earned holy day.