Learning about the saint behind the Santa Claus legend

Fr Merv Santa Claus

From an ascetic bishop to a jolly bearded man in a red suit, the story of St Nicholas is one that reached legendary proportions as it was passed on from person to person and culture to culture.  

Te Kupenga lecturer Fr Merv Duffy, SM, who acknowledged a little resemblance to the modern-day version of the saint, said a “whole series of . . . popular devotion, artistic imagination, poetic convention and advertising” gave us the Santa Claus that we have today. Fr Duffy gave a talk called “The Saint behind Santa” on Zoom on December 15.  

“All of this stuff is well beyond the control of any person or group. You’ve got artists imagining. You’ve got poets writing stories. You’ve got the songs that are popular, and you’ve got parents who want to give their children a figure of something fun at this time of year,” Fr Duffy said.   

Santa Claus is originally Nikolaos, born in the port town of Patara, Turkey in 270AD to a rich Greek family. This enabled him to be well-travelled, visiting both Egypt and the Holy Land.   

A religious young man, he was ordained as a priest by the bishop, who was also his uncle. Years later, he became a bishop himself of another port town, Myra.   

In the very early 300s, Bishop Nikolaos was arrested and tortured as part of the persecution of Christians by Emperor Diocletian. He was released in 313AD by Constantine and Maxentius, co-emperors who allowed Christians to worship freely.  

Bishop Nikolaos was also among those who attended the Council of Nicaea called by Emperor Constantine in 325.  

He died on December 6, 343, at age 73. And his legend began.  

Fr Duffy said that Bishop Nikolaos was considered a “Confessor”, one who suffered for the faith. His (Bishop Nikolaos’) tomb in Myra became a place of worship and intercession.  

“We get evidence of what was referred to as the ‘cult of Nikolaos’, of prayers to Nicholas and holy prayers to Nicholas. In the Orthodox Church, Nicholas gets the reputation of the wonderworker because of the miracles associated with his intercession,” he said.  

Fr Duffy said that the first written evidence of the cult dates from the eighth century, but the cult started earlier. The oldest prayer to Nicholas was for safe voyage, as Myra, where he (Nicholas) had been bishop, was a port town.  

A natural extension of this was invoking St Nicholas for the safe passage of sea cargo.   

“There’s a legend about Nicholas which claimed that, during a famine, he intervened to get food supplies for his city,” Fr Duffy said.  

According to the legend, during a famine, St Nicholas intervened to get food supplies to his city of Myra from an imperial convoy shipping grain from Alexandria to Constantinople. The wheat taken from the ships was miraculously topped up as if nothing had been taken.  

The most popular legend, though, was of Nicholas giving a man three bags of gold for dowry for his three daughters.  

This legend explains why St Nicholas’ symbol is three gold balls, representing the bags of gold for each daughter. This also explains why he is the patron saint of pawnbrokers, Fr Duffy said.  

The symbol of the balls, though, was misunderstood in the re-telling. Some thought they (balls) were oranges and assumed St Nicholas was from Spain.  

Fr Duffy said that the gold balls must have been misinterpreted as three blond heads, as another legend, that of the evil butcher, told of three blond children who wandered into his (evil butcher’s) shop. The butcher cut the children up, put them in a salting tub and, after seven years, St Nicholas came to the shop, told the butcher to open the tubs and asked the children to arise.  

“Ever since, Nicholas has been the patron of children because of this legend,” Fr Duffy said. “And because of the charity of St Nicholas, he is associated with gift-giving.”  

The story of Bishop Nikolaos was spread far and wide by seafarers. In Amsterdam, he became known as Sinter Claes (Saint Nicholas) and Dutch immigrants to America brought with them their devotion to the saint.  

In America, St Nicholas underwent another transformation through the poem penned by Clement Clarke Moore, A Visit from St Nicholas, in 1823, where he was described as an elf with a miniature sleigh that goes through the chimney to leave gifts.  

In 1931, clever advertising by Coca-Cola illustrated St Nicholas in the image that is now prevalent.  

“Santa Claus was originally St Nicholas, and the wonderworker is the human figure behind the legend of Santa Claus,” Fr Duffy said.  

“He’s been real to people in all sorts of different ways. And the idea that children have a patron who will look after them is a way of parents showing love, and also teaching them of the love of God.”  


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