The name of St. Nicholas is commonly associated with the Christmas season, but popular imagination is likely to picture him less as a saint wearing bishop’s robes and more as a plump, jolly man in a bright red suit.
Santa Claus is commonly known as “old Saint Nick,” and the modern idea of him was influenced in part by the legendary figure of St. Nicholas. But in Christian denominations around the world, Nicholas of Myra remains one of the most widely venerated saints, known as the patron saint of sailors, merchants, students and children, among other groups.
Within the Anglican Church of Canada, Nicholas is the patron saint of the Anglican Military Ordinariate. At least seven Anglican churches across Canada—in Ontario, Saskatchewan, Nova Scotia and Newfoundland and Labrador—have named themselves after him. Each year, Anglicans celebrate his feast day on Dec. 6, the date on which Nicholas is said to have died in Myra in the year 342.
Separating historical fact from fiction, however, can be difficult when it comes to the lives of the saints. Nicholas is noteworthy among the saints for the sheer number of legendary tales that came to be associated with him. Traditionally, he is said to have been born in the year 270 in Patara, a Turkish commercial city that was then part of the Roman Empire. But even his very existence remains an open question among some scholars.
“If St. Nicholas of Myra existed at all, we can know nothing of his life with historical certainty,” says Thomas Power, adjunct professor of church history at Wycliffe College. “We do know that he was Bishop of Myra in Lycia,… an ancient city located on the southern coast of Turkey on the Mediterranean.”
Kevin Flynn, director of Anglican studies at St. Paul University, offers a similar assessment of the historical record, noting only that “people are pretty confident that there was somebody named Nicholas who was a bishop in that part of the world.”
“There’s not a huge amount that can be said [with] absolute certainty about the details of his life,” Flynn adds. “There’s abundant legendary material, including, for example, that he was at the Council of Nicaea and punched Arius the heretic. But there’s not even any record of his having been there.”
Many legends became associated with Nicholas that later led to his status as a patron saint.
The port city of Myra, where Nicholas served as bishop, was a common stop for ships en route between Rome, Egypt and Byzantium. According to legend, Nicholas is said to have saved Myra from starvation by seizing grain from a ship bound for Byzantium from Egypt. No one noticed the stolen cargo, which was viewed as a miracle. As a result, Nicholas became the patron saint of sailors, and churches dedicated to him are often built so they can be viewed off the coast as landmarks.
In another story, a poor father in Myra had three young daughters who were being courted for marriage but lacked dowries. Nicholas is said to have supplied their dowries by anonymously leaving bags of gold in their home.
“In this way he rescued them from what would otherwise might have been a life of impoverishment and degradation,” Power says. “When Nicholas’s identity was revealed, his fame as a gift-giver spread.”
“Here was all the raw material for what was to become in time the Santa Claus tale: A secret night visitor who silently entered a home to bestow wonderful gifts on children. The result was that he became the patron saint of children, his gifts to whom became the basis of his later association (as Santa Claus) with Christmas.”
Over the years, Power says, a cult grew up around Nicholas, and his church in Myra became a major centre of pilgrimage. In 1087, sailors from the southern port city of Bari in Italy raided the church and stole Nicholas’s remains, claiming that the Muslim Turks who then occupied Myra would desecrate his tomb. The theft of his bones transferred many of the traditions surrounding Nicholas from the East to the West, where they subsequently spread.
Legends about Nicholas gradually became entrenched in the unique cultural traditions of different countries. In the Netherlands, he took the form of Sinterklaas, a mythical figure said to have sailed from Spain with a Moorish helper named Black Peter (“Zwarte Piet”). Sinterklaas supposedly filled Dutch children’s shoes with treats and knew whether their behaviour was good or bad.
In North America, the idea of Sinterklaas arrived with Dutch immigrants, and his name became anglicized as Santa Claus. The publication in 1823 of Clement Clarke Moore’s poem A Visit from St. Nicholas, commonly known as The Night Before Christmas, helped establish the modern image of Santa Claus, which was further popularized in the 1930s through advertisements for Coca-Cola.
While the feast day for Nicholas falls near the start of Advent, Flynn calls the date largely a coincidence. He suggests that perceptions of Nicholas were more likely influenced by Advent rather than the other way around, due to the prominence of contemporary Christmas culture.
“These days, you wouldn’t know that [Nicholas] was a bishop,” Flynn says. “There are some places, like in the Netherlands still, where on Dec. 6 there is a Santa Claus, a St. Nicholas, who goes around, he’s still dressed in bishop’s robes and so forth. That’s disappeared from the contemporary Santa Claus phenomenon, so in a way, it’s too bad that that’s been obscured by more sentimental and frankly commercial interests.”
Yet if, as Power argues, “the original cult of St. Nicholas has been overshadowed by that of Santa Claus,” Nicholas still maintains a prominent place in the devotional imagination, particularly in the Christian East.
As the patron saint of countries like Greece and Russia, Nicholas is widely depicted in icons dressed as an Orthodox bishop. In many Eastern Orthodox traditions, when a child is born, parents will place an icon of St. Nicholas at the foot of the child’s cradle, underscoring his image as a protector of children.
Though Nicholas is a less central figure among Canadian Anglicans, the Anglican Military Ordinariate reiterated his continuing relevance in June 2010 when the ordinariate named Nicholas its patron saint. In an article written at the time, Padre Brad Smith called Nicholas “an inspiration to Christians everywhere,” describing his veneration by both Western and Eastern Christians as a sign of the universality of the gospel.
“For chaplains, who are often called to provide advice to commanders and on-the-ground support to deployed troops, St. Nicholas represents the chaplain’s call to serve regardless of religious background and encourages us to work with chaplains of other faith traditions,” Smith wrote. “His birthplace (modern-day Turkey) also provides us with a catalyst to cross the boundary between Christians and Muslims.”
Among tales of the saint, the story of Nicholas saving girls from being taken into sexual slavery also has a new relevance for Anglicans today as the worldwide Anglican Communion calls for the eradication of human trafficking and modern slavery.
Regardless of the historical facts around Nicholas, Flynn says, the legend that has grown up around him has become significant in its own right as a reminder of Christian concern for the young and those in need.
“I know Romeo and Juliet is a fiction, but it tells me a lot of true things about how people relate to one another,” Flynn says as an analogy.
“We don’t remember Nicholas just because the church is incurably antiquarian—but because the saints are not just our predecessors, but our contemporaries in Christ. What he represents about faithful Christian leadership is just as significant to us now as it’s ever been.”