Behind the jolly, red-suited, shopping mall Santa of today lies a real person-St. Nicholas of Myra, a Christian monk who lived in the third century A.D., in what is now Turkey. We know very few historical details of St. Nicholas’ life. Even the year of his death is uncertain, although both the Catholic and Eastern Orthodox churches have celebrated December 6-the date of his passing- for more than 1,000 years. Within a century of his death, the much-admired Nicholas had become the center of a series of folk legends. He was credited with stopping a violent storm to save doomed sailors, donating money to a father forced to sell his daughters into prostitution, and even restoring to life a trio of boys who had been dismembered by an unscrupulous butcher. Today, Nicholas is considered the patron saint of sailors, children, wolves and pawnbrokers, among others.
By the Middle Ages, Nicholas’ fame had spread to much of Europe, thanks in large part to the dissemination of parts of his skeleton to churches in Italy, where they were venerated as relics. St. Nicholas’ popularity eventually spread to northern Europe, where stories of the monk mingled with Teutonic folktales of elves and sky-chariots. In the Netherlands, St. Nicholas took on the Dutch-friendly spelling Sinterklaas. He was depicted as a tall, white-bearded man in red clerical robes who arrived every December 6 on a boat to leave gifts or coal-lumps at children’s homes. Stories of Sinterklaas were likely brought to the New World by Dutch settlers in the Hudson River valley. In his satirical 1809 “History of New-York,” Washington Irving portrayed St. Nicholas as a portly Dutchman who flew the skies in a wagon, dropping gifts down chimneys. In 1823 another New Yorker, Clement Clarke Moore, penned the poem “A Visit from Saint Nicholas”, which traded the wagon for a sleigh drawn by “eight tiny reindeer.” Beginning during the Civil War, cartoonist Thomas Nast published the first of a series of popular depictions of a rotund and jolly St. Nicholas. In 1879 Nast was the first to suggest that St. Nicholas lived not in Turkey, Spain or Holland but at the North Pole.