With Christmas coming up, your young children may no doubt be writing (or emailing) their letters to Santa, making wish lists, and getting excited about presents under the tree. You will be telling them to be good for Santa, and maybe even taking them to visit him in person to reveal their Christmas wishes. You will undoubtedly be watching a multitude of Christmas movies with Santa Claus in them, usually featured prominently as the main character, or at least a strong supporting one. It’s a ton of fun.
But, did you know there is a real person behind the Santa Claus of myth and legend? There are other names for Santa Claus, after all, such as St. Nick, Father Christmas, and Chris Cringle. All of these identities are just different names for one very real historical person. Here is the story of the man behind the red suit, jolly laugh, long white beard, and the flying reindeer.
The real Santa Claus was referred to in his time as Nicholas of Myra and Lycia. He was born around 280 A.D. in Patara, which was an area where people of Greek heritage lived; the town is now in modern-day Turkey. His parents are unknown, but it is known they died when Nicholas was relatively young, and also that they must have been wealthy, or at least middle class, as they left him an inheritance.
As a young man, he gave all of his inheritance away to help the needy, the ill, and other people who were suffering in some way.
After giving away all of his money, he was made a bishop of the town of Myra, which today is called Demre. He was still quite young when he was given this position. As Bishop of Myra, Nicholas became known for his love of children, his generosity to those who needed it, as well as for his personal concern and caring for sailors and ships. It is this legendary kindness, especially toward children and with his giving of gifts to those in need, that the legend of St. Nicholas, who would become our modern-day Santa Claus, was born.
Nicholas was even present at a famous historical event, the Council of Nicaea in 325 A.D. He is listed on an official roll of attendees, number 151 on the list, as “Nicholas of Myra of Lycia.” The Council was called by the Byzantine emperor (the eastern part of the old Roman empire) Constantine to establish and normalize a uniform church doctrine. Most of the debate concerned the nature of Jesus and his relationship to God the Father. Most attendees adhered to the orthodox view of Jesus being as divine and eternal as God, essentially His equal.
A small, opposing faction, called the Arians, viewed Jesus as the first and best of God’s creations, but not equal to Him in divinity or eternalness because he was a creation. Nicholas was a staunch anti-Arian. Legend has it that he became so angry at Arius, the leader of the Arians, during the Council that he struck Arius in the face. Of course, Arius is not listed in the attendance roll and was not a bishop, which was a requirement for attendance, so his presence at the Council is unlikely. However, the story does show how passionate Nicholas was about his anti-Arian beliefs.
Besides establishing the anti-Arian, orthodox view of Jesus as equal to God the Father, the Council also established the Nicene Creed, of which Nicholas was a signer.
During Nicholas’s lifetime, Christians were still being persecuted in the western Roman Empire. The western emperor, Diocletian, was not a fan of Christians, and any who wandered into his territory was in danger. That fate befell Nicholas, who came to western Rome sometime between before attending the Council. He spent time in prison there, where there were more Christians, both lay, and leaders, in the prisons than actual criminals. Upon his release, he was exiled from western Rome and attended the Council sometime afterward. He is lucky to have avoided execution under Diocletian, as many others were not so fortunate.
Nicholas died, still the Bishop of Myra, on December 6, 343 A.D., in Myra, and was buried in the church in which he served. After his death, a unique liquid substance called manna formed on his grave, and it was believed to have healing powers. This was considered a miracle, and he was eventually canonized as a saint. His feast day on the Catholic church calendar is called St. Nicholas Day and is December 6 on the modern Gregorian calendar (December 19 on the previous Julian calendar).
Nicholas continued to be a popular saint in Europe until the Reformation of the 1500’s when the Protestants broke from the Catholics and turned away from celebrating saints. The Catholics still venerated him, and continue to do so. Even during and after the Reformation, however, Nicholas continued to be celebrated in The Netherlands. They continued celebrating his feast day, and a custom began of children putting their shoes out the night before the feast. In the morning, they would look inside their shoes for gifts they were told St. Nicholas left for them.
The Dutch practice of the 1500s is the prototype for our modern-day Santa Claus. Dutch immigrants brought their customs to America with them during colonization, and he began being known by his Dutch nickname of Sinterklaas, which was short for Saint Nicholas. By the early 1800s, St. Nicholas’s feast day had merged with the Christmas holiday, and Santa Claus was born. He is first described as we know him today in an 1820 poem by Clement Clarke Moore called “An Account of a Visit from St. Nicholas.” The sleigh pulled by flying reindeer is introduced in this poem. In 1881, cartoonist Thomas Nast drew him for the first time as we know him today, in a red suit with white trim. Nicholas of Myra and Lycia, known for his kindness, had become the modern legend of Santa Claus.