The Legend of Saint Nicholas

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Podcast Transcript

On December 6 every year, countries all across Europe celebrate Saint Nicholas Day. 

The way they celebrate can vary dramatically from place to place, but what they all have in common is honoring a man with a long white beard who gives presents to children.

If all that sounds familiar, it should.

Learn more about St. Nicholas, St. Nicholas day, and how it is celebrated around the world, on this episode of Everything Everywhere Daily.

The story of Saint Nicholas is similar to the story of many saints and other personalities from antiquity. We don’t know much about them, what we do know was written well after the fact, and there was probably a lot of embellishment of their stories. 

So, everything about Saint Nicholas has to be taken with a big grain of salt. 

Nicholas was born in the year 270 in the city of Patara in Asia Minor, or what we call today Turkey. He was born in the Roman Empire when it was pretty much at its peak. 

He was supposedly born to a wealthy Greek Christian family, and he had an uncle who was a bishop in the city of Myrna.

There is little known about his life growing up. When he was a young man, his parents died in an epidemic. When he received his inheritance, he made the decision to give it all away to the poor.  His uncle, seeing his virtue, supposedly made him a priest. 

His generosity became legendary. In one of his most famous acts of charity, there was a man with three daughters who couldn’t afford their dowries to get them married. Without getting married, and this is the way it worked at the time, the daughters would probably have been forced into prostitution. 

He wanted to help the father but he didn’t want to embarrass him by publicly giving him charity. So, he snuck into his house on three separate nights, delivering three bags of gold, one for each daughter. 

On the third night, the father stayed up to find out who had been leaving the gold and he found Nicholas was delivering the gold. He thanked him profusely, but Nicholas asked him to keep it a secret.

He was also known for leaving coins in the shoes of children who left them out overnight. 

He made a pilgrimage to the Holy Land and then returned to Myrna where he was made bishop, holding the position his uncle once held.

He also famously freed three innocent men who were about to be executed.

He reportedly attended the Council of Nicaea in 325, which is an interesting story in and of itself, and will be the focus of a future episode. 

He also was imprisoned under the Christian persecution of Emperor Diocletian but was later freed by Emperor Constantine. 

All the things I’ve listed are biographical items that fall into the category of plausibility. However, there are a whole bunch of things that fall into the miraculous category which also are attributed to Nicholas.

When he went to the holy land, supposedly his boat was caught in a storm, and he commanded the seas to become calm. 

The most famous miracle attributed to him is the one most bizarre to modern audiences. Supposedly during a famine, a man lured three children into his house and killed them. He then chopped up the children and put them in a pickling barrel, with the intent of selling them as meat. 

Saint Nicholas met the man and saw through his lies. He made the sign of the cross over the pickling barrel and the three children came out alive and reassembled. 

FYI, reassembling and reviving disassembled children is an awesome party trick. 

This miracle is the one for which Nicholas was best known for. When he appears in paintings throughout history, he is usually shown with three children coming out of a vat. 

After his death, he was declared a saint, and he is the patron saint of a whole bunch of seemingly unrelated things: sailors, merchants, archers, repentant thieves, prostitutes, children, brewers, pawnbrokers, unmarried people, and students.

Nicholas was buried in his church, and 200 years later a new church of Saint Nicholas was built under the orders of Emperor Theodosius II where his remains were moved. 

After the Great Schism, his body was stolen by Italians and taken to the city of Bari, Italy, and enshrined at the Basilica di San Nicola, where they reside today. 

He supposedly died on December 6, 343, which is why December 6th is his feast day.

So, Ok, biography of an ancient saint, fine and dandy, but how does the person I just described become the person we know as Saint Nick?

In the Middle Ages, there were tons of feast days centered around saints. Nicholas was a pretty prominent saint at that time, and he was best known for both children and gift-giving.

The way Saint Nicholas day is celebrated really varies quite greatly throughout Europe. 

While the traditions might vary, there are several things which most of the celebrations have in common.

First, is the giving of gifts in some form. The most common form of this is children leaving shoes out and then having them filled at night with coins, candy, gifts, or fruit.  

Second, someone or many people will usually dress up as Saint Nicholas as a bishop. This will usually entail wearing a bishop’s miter on their head, having a staff, and a long white beard. 

Third, Saint Nicholas will often tell children that they need to be good for the year. Many countries also have an associate of Saint Nicholas whose job is to punish bad children. This character is often known as Krampus, 

The parallels to Christmas are pretty obvious. But how did a Roman Era saint and the associated traditions with his feast day get associated with the totally different holiday of Christmas? 

The first reason had to do with the Protestant Reformation. In northern Europe, as Protestantism became ascendant, saints and feast days fell out of popularity. 

However, people still wanted to engage in gift-giving, especially giving gifts to children. 

Because Saint Nicholas Day and Christmas are only about three weeks apart, many of the traditions were just transferred over to Christmas. Instead of Saint Nicholas giving gifts, they could just have them come directly from Jesus.

However, there was one northern European country that had a much more direct impact on transferring the Saint Nicholas traditions to Christmas: the Netherlands.

In the Netherlands, they never really gave up on Saint Nicholas Day. To the Dutch, Saint Nicholas is known as Sinterklaas. 

When the Dutch set up colonies in North America, they brought the traditions of Saint Nicholas Day with them. 

Many of the communities in the United States which still celebrate Saint Nicholas Day have communities with a significant Dutch heritage. I’m about half Dutch, and I remember getting gifts every Saint Nicholas Day. My grandmother would knock on our windows at night and then we would find fruit and candy on our doorstep.

It was this Dutch tradition of Saint Nicholas that gradually morphed into Christmas traditions and how Sinterklaas became Santa Claus. 

In 1809, Washington Irving wrote A Knickerbocker’s History of New York where he talked about a flying, pipe-smoking Saint Nicholas. 

An 1821 poem titled The Children’s Friend took the idea of Saint Nicholas and stripped him of most religious symbolism.

Finally, in 1822 Clement Clarke Moore wrote A Visit From St. Nicholas also more commonly known as A Night Before Christmas really cemented the association of Saint Nicholas with Christmas and with a Santa-type figure. 

The complete story of the creation of the modern version of Santa Claus I’ll leave for a future episode. 

However, the Santa Clause we have today and many of the traditions we associate with Christmas all come from a 3rd century Greek bishop who was best known for reassembling chopped-up children.