Saint Nicholas, the true Santa Claus

St Nicholas Gentile da FabrianoThe familiar images of Santa Claus or Père Noël have obscured the historical Nicholas, Bishop of Myra, whose feast day is celebrated on December 6 (December 19 in the Eastern Orthodox calendar) in the early days of this Advent season.

Born in 270 into a wealthy Greek family, Nicholas lived in Lycia, a region of modern-day Turkey. It is most likely that he never set eyes on any reindeer. Little is ascertained about his life beyond the fact that, like many early Christians, he was jailed and tortured for his faith, and that his generosity and kindness made a deep impression on his contemporaries.

Nicholas is credited with reviving children who had been murdered by a butcher, calming stormy seas to safely bring to port endangered sailors, saving the lives of prisoners sentenced to death, and presenting poor girls with dowries. This deed is represented in the scene to the right of the beautiful painting by Fra Angelico, below. See how Nicholas, in the blue robe and black headdress, is stuffing stockings while the three children are asleep. This is of course the origin of all stories about Santa’s nightly visit. To the left Nicholas is also represented in his Bishop’s vestments, preaching from a pulpit on a street.

Why was it considered so important then to give poor girls dowries? Simply because they were among the most vulnerable of the paupers, likely to sink into prostitution. Securing dowries for them was the best way of helping them avoid that grim fate.

So Nicholas became the patron saint of children, of mariners, of young people wishing to marry, of newlyweds, of prisoners (whether fairly or unjustly accused) and yes, of lawyers. The veneration for his memory was such that his bones were stolen by adventurous sailors from his original tomb in the Church of Myra in 1087 and brought to Bari, in Italy, where they rest to this day in the Basilica that bears his name.

His popularity extends well beyond Italy, to Eastern France, to Brittany, to Germany, to the Netherlands, to Russia…

For much more information on the man, his life and his legend, I refer you to the wonderful St. Nicholas Center site.

And this post is dedicated to my nephew Nicolas, who will be celebrating his feast day today. Bonne fête, Nicolas!

Fra Angelico St Nicholas

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