THE sixth of December has been anciently observed as the feast of a saint with a very intimate modern connection with Christmas: St Nicholas. Who is Nicholas, and how does he relate to the modern Santa?
OF COURSE, St Nicholas does not, despite some contemporary misunderstandings, appear in the Bible. The New Testament uses the title “saint” — which comes originally from the Latin word for “holy” — to designate all those who have been “made holy”: set apart as belonging to God’s Kingdom by being baptised. In Revelation, the saints of God appear in heaven, where an angel describes them as having “washed their robes and made them white in the blood of the Lamb” (7.14), a reference to Christ’s atoning sacrifice on the cross. The title “saint” began to be used for those whose lives demonstrated especial holiness, in whom the work of God’s grace had been especially apparent, which led people to believe that they were certain of being in heaven with the Lord.
ST NICHOLAS was the Bishop of Myra in what is today Turkey, but which was then an eastern province of the Roman Empire, shortly after the conversion of the Empire to the Christian faith. Nicholas lived at the end of the third century and the beginning of the fourth; so he personally witnessed the transformation of Christianity from persecuted religion to the state sponsorship that came with the conversion of the Emperor Constantine.
These were heady days for the Church, but also difficult ones, because there were deep arguments about the true identity of Jesus. One leading Egyptian priest, Arius, argued that Jesus wasn’t God incarnate, but a sort of super-exalted angel, and was so persuasive that the global Church began to divide over the issue. Nicholas is said to have been so annoyed by Arius that he swung at him with his fists at one of the church councils.
It is this (largely overlooked) history of Nicholas as the Middle Eastern Orthodox bishop which I drew on in my picture of the saint, basing my depiction on a portrait imagined by the 19th-century Czech painter Jaroslav Mermák.
IT IS after Nicholas’s death, however, that his reputation really takes off. In the medieval period, his chief fame was as the patron saint of sailors, and his tomb was at first on the island of Gemile and then at Myra, a centre of pilgrimage — and of pillage. The Italian trading city of Bari sought to make Nicholas its own by kidnapping his bones in 1087, and taking them to the city to ensure the safety of its fleets. To this day, the city celebrates a feast day in great style on 9 May, the date when St Nicholas’s relics traditionally arrived in their new home.
However, there were also legends of Nicholas’s special care for children. He is said to have restored to life three children who had been killed and pickled by a rogue butcher during a time of famine. More particularly, one early story told how he had rescued three poor girls from potential human trafficking, by providing money to be offered as dowries for them, dropping the bags of gold anonymously down the chimney. The seeds of a rapidly growing tradition had been sown.
By the 16th century, the cult of St Nicholas had spread from Italy to the Netherlands, and it was here that Sinta Klaas, the gift-bearing bishop, really entered into the Christmas spirit. His generosity was now something from which each child was able to benefit, bringing gifts on his feast day to reward the good, while accompanied by “Zwarte Piet”, a rather racist stereotype of a Spanish moor, who might punish the bad.
In Eastern Europe, St Nicholas was accompanied by the even more terrifying Krampus, a demonic figure with which parents could terrify their children into adopting good behaviour. By the time Dutch settlers in the United States had brought traditions from the homeland with them, some of these negative accoutrements had been largely and happily disposed of, although Santa Claus — as he had now become — still kept a record of whether children were deserving of Christmas gifts.
A merger with the English tradition of Father Christmas, however, meant that the image of the gift-giving bishop was largely swamped by the semi-pagan midwinter spirit, and his origins virtually forgotten, as the North Pole became his residence, and elvish toymakers became his companions.
THERE are two aspects of Nicholas’s story that resonate with the Christian disciple down through the ages. First is his defence of orthodoxy — the right worship — of God to which all Christians are enjoined. The Creed of the Council of Nicaea, which Nicholas attended in 325, remains to this day the clearest articulation of fundamental truths defended as the Christian faith “delivered to the saints”.
However, the second must be his generosity, and the inspiration of his gift-giving at Christmas. We are all called to generosity (2 Corinthians 9.6-8), and this reflects the grace of God, who freely gives to us in Christ. “You received without cost; give without charge,” says the Lord (Matthew 10.8). The true worship of God must lead to truly transformed lives. As we reflect on the generosity and merriment in good things exhibited in the story of St Nicholas, Santa Claus, pause to pray that his spirit may be part of the discipleship we live.
Generous God, you gave us an example of fidelity and generosity in the ministry and example of St Nicholas. In this holy season, may that same example inspire and guide our planning and our actions, our worship, and our hopes, so that with him we may follow Jesus, the Lord and Saviour in whose name we pray. Amen.
The Rt Revd Gregory K. Cameron is the Bishop of St Asaph.
An Advent Book of Days: Meeting the characters of Christmas is published by Canterbury Press at £9.99 (CT Bookshop £8.99).