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Before there was a Santa: the Medieval Veneration of Saint Nicholas

No other saint has become as universally known and loved as "jolly old St. Nicholas". A fourth century bishop in Asia Minor, by the sixth century, the Emperor Justinian I was building churches in his honor in Constantinople, and ranking him second only to St. Paul and the Apostles. Today, he is still honored as a saint by Roman Catholicism, Greek and Russian Orthodoxy, Anglicanism and is even venerated in several Protestant denominations. As one of the great saints of the medieval church, Nicholas was patron of children, unwed women, sailors, fisherman, bakers, brewers, pawnbrokers, paupers and travelers. He is the protector of Sicily, Greece and Russia and was the particular patron of the famed Varangian Guard of Byzantium, who were charged with guarding his relics. Credited by medieval writers with the destruction of the great Temple of Artemis on Myra, ironically, as the Christian "Patron of the Sea", he posthumously assumed many of the powers, responsibilities and shrines of the pagan god Poseidon. Yet for all of these different legends and associations, and although the Feast of St. Nicholas is December 6, it is his association with "Santa Claus" and Christmas that keeps him alive in the hearts and minds of most people.

So who was Nicholas, and how did he come to be associated with the giving of Christmas presents?

The Historical Nicholas

The first question has no easy answer, since the earliest written accounts of St. Nicholas date from nearly 500 years after his life, and his "official" biography coalesced in the 13th century. The historical and mythological figures have become inextricably blurred together. As the story has been recorded, the saint was born before the year 300 in the Greek colony of Patara, Lycia - a part of the Roman province of Asia Minor. His family were Hellenistic Christians of great wealth, but died young, leaving Nicholas an orphan. The family's wealth was somehow connected to the fishing industry - accounts differ - and Nicholas is said to have been virtually raised at sea. Whatever the case, after his parent's death, young Nicholas determined to enter the priesthood, and gave away his fortune to the poor.

His early activities as a priest are said to have occurred during the persecution of Christians under the reign of the co-emperors Diocletian and Maximian. Although some popular medieval accounts of his life claimed that Nicholas was martyred under Diocletian, this was clearly not the case, although he likely was jailed and tortured with the Christian community of Lycia during this time. In either case, Nicholas survived and was released when Emperor Galerius issued a general edict of toleration for Christians from his deathbed (311). Galerius' co-ruler Licinius continued this policy of tolerance, and the Christian community of the Eastern Empire began to wield great religious, social, and political influence. It was during this period that Nicholas rose to become bishop of Myra, and it is during his time as bishop that the earliest listing of his deeds is recorded. Besides charitable acts and a fierce opposition to both paganism and heresy, Nicholas seems to have used his bishopric to intercede on behalf of debtors, the falsely accused, foreigners and prostitutes, and many of the medieval legends about him are built around these incidents.

Nicholas lived to an old age and is said to have died peacefully in his own bed, sometime around 342 AD. He was buried in Myra, and it was claimed his bones sweated out a clear watery liquid each year, called manna, which of course was said to possess curative powers. After the Byzantine defeat in the disastrous Battle of Manzikert (1071), the bones were stolen and moved to Bari, Italy, but their miraculous powers were said to continue. Even today, a flask of manna is extracted from the tomb of Saint Nicholas every year on December 6th. In the 1950s, the Catholic Church allowed the remains to be examined by scientists. The forensics team determined the remains to belong to an elderly man, little more than five feet tall, whose body showed signs of healed trauma, including a badly broken nose.

Deeds and Miracles

If the historical data of Nicholas is unclear, the legendary account is quite rich, although some of the most celebrated of the bishop's acts seems rather incongruous to modern eyes with the idea of "jolly old St. Nick". The first of these was the destruction of the great Lycian temple of Artemis, which he had raised to the ground, its altar and statues cast into the sea, and its faithful driven out with scourges. (Many scholars believe that Nicholas' feast on December 6 was chosen to commemorate this event, as it was also the traditional Roman celebration of Diana-Artemis' birth.)

Nicholas had little more tolerance for "heretics" than he did pagans. The bishop of Myra is listed as a participant in the First Council of Nicaea, where legend records that he became so angry upon hearing the views of Arius (the founder of Arianism, a Christian heresy that denied the divinity of Christ), that he leapt from his seat, and battered the heretic down to ground with his fists. While a wonderful story, this account also shows the blurring of fact and legend in the life of Nicholas - there are many accounts of the Council of Nicaea, and only those that specifically deal with Nicholas himself record his even having been present. What is clear is that he was a fierce opponent of Arianism (which denied the divinity of Christ), as one biographer records: "Thanks to the teaching of St. Nicholas, the metropolis of Myra alone was untouched by the filth of the Arian heresy, which it firmly rejected as a death-dealing poison."

The other tales of Nicholas' deeds are more in keeping with what we might expect of a saint and proto-Santa Claus. The first of these concerns the giving of gifts, particularly to the abject poor and children. When he gave away his wealth, Nicholas is said to have allotted much of it to orphaned children, travelers who had fallen upon hard times, and prostitutes. In his most famous exploit a poor man had three daughters but could not afford a proper dowry for them. This meant that they would remain unmarried and probably, in absence of any other possible employment would have to become prostitutes. Nicholas heard of his plight, but knowing that the man would not accept charity, he went to his house under the cover of night and threw three purses filled with gold coins through the window opening onto the man's floor. There are different versions of this story; most having the Saint make three separate visits to bring the gold. On the third night, the window was barred against the chill, so he climbed the roof and dropped the gold down the chimney. One of the daughters had washed her stockings and hung them to dry over the embers of the fire, and….you know the rest!

It was from this help to the poor that Nicholas became the patron saint of pawnbrokers; and the three gold balls traditionally hung outside a pawnshop symbolize the three sacks of gold. People then began to suspect that he was behind a large number of other anonymous gifts to the poor, using the inheritance from his wealthy parents. After he died, people in the region continued to give to the poor anonymously, and such gifts were still often attributed to St. Nicholas.

The other famous, oft repeated legend of Nicholas tells of how a terrible famine struck Myra, killing most of the livestock, so that there was no fresh meat. An evil butcher lured three little children into his house, killed and slaughtered them, and put their remains in a barrel to cure, planning to sell them as ham. Saint Nicholas, visiting the region to care for the hungry, not only saw through the butcher's horrific crime but also managed to resurrect the three boys from the barrel.

The Veneration of St. Nicholas

Devotion to Nicholas memory was widespread and his formal veneration had begun within a century after his death. While Justinian's church cemented his place in Eastern Christendom, by the mid-seventh century, shrines to St. Nicholas also began to appear in Western Europe. By the 900s, a Greek author wrote, "The West as well as the East acclaims and glorifies him. Wherever there are people, his name is revered and churches are built in his honor. All Christians reverence his memory and call upon his protection."  But it was the seizure and removal of the saint's remains from Myra to Bari that really caused his cult to grow in the west, and his veneration became particularly strong in seafaring places, such as Sicily, Normandy, the Flemish ports, England and the German river towns. Only Mary is said to have been portrayed more consistently by medieval artists. In typical medieval syncretism, just as the people of Asia Minor and Greece had blurred Nicholas with Poseidon, German legends of the saint as a wandering traveler and a dispenser of both blessings and banes owe their origin to the myth of Wotan.

The "official" story of Nicholas was recorded in The Golden Legend (Legenda Aurea), by Jacobus de Voragine (1228-1298), a large and pious compilation of the lives and miracles of Jesus, Mary, and countless saints. Although it was not officially commissioned by the papacy, the work attracted an enormous medieval readership and was translated into many European languages. Thus it came to provide the definitive version of the miracle tales so beloved of Medieval Christendom. A 1483 English version by William Caxton became one of the first books printed in English.

From Saint to Santa

As Nicholas' cult spread, a tradition of celebration, giving of gifts (to commemorate his charity), and the making of special "St. Nicholas Cookies" grew up around his feast. As Nicholas was the patron of children, the feast was also considered to be a time for giving gifts to children and tending to the orphaned. Although the Reformation and Counter-Reformation led to a waning in the veneration of Saints, the reverence of St. Nicholas survived in Europe as people continued to place nuts, apples, and sweets in shoes left beside beds, on windowsills, or before the hearth.

Traditions of St. Nicholas Day were brought with 17th-century Dutch settlers to New Amsterdam, which was destined to become New York. During the Revolutionary War, the New York colonists wanted to form a counterpart to the English "Saint George Societies" and looked to Nicholas, or in Dutch "Sinter Klaas", as their inspiration. This was more a political statement than a religious one, but the St. Nicholas Society outlived the Revolution, and one member, the famed writer Washing Irving, penned his satirical Knickerbocker's History of New York and published it on St. Nicholas' Day, recounting the importance of the saint to Dutch immigrants, and freely embellishing their traditions, including the notion that Nicholas entered the homes of those he wished to aid by sliding down their chimney. This in turn inspired "A Visit from Saint Nicholas", better known today as "The Night Before Christmas" in 1823 and the image of a roly-poly, elf-like bringer of gifts was formed. More importantly, "Sinter Klaas" and his gift giving were now also inextricably tied, not to a day in the Advent season, but to Christmas itself. Santa Claus was born.

So while our image today of Santa Claus or "Jolly Old St. Nicholas" is really a product of the last two-hundred years, the belief in a charitable, gift-giving, protector of children extends back into the earliest centuries of the Christian era, and was a central figure of medieval belief. While St. Nicholas himself may not have been linked to Christmas, it was perhaps inevitable that he would become so, as the resonance of his story with that of the Nativity, its proximity to Christmas itself, and the incredible popularity of the saint made him one of the most beloved figures of the medieval faithful.

Bibliography

Jackson, Sophie,The Medieval Christmas, Sutton Publishing, UK, 2005
Jones, Charltes,Saint Nicholas of Myra, Bari, and Manhatten: Biography of a Legend University of Chicago Press, 1978.

St. Nicholas: Discovering the Truth About Santa Claus

The story of St. Nicholas, as related in The Golden Legend or Lives of the Saints. Compiled by Jacobus de Voragine, Archbishop of Genoa, 1275 - webbed at the Medieval Sourcebook

The 13th century Greek Account of the Translation of St. Nicholas, also webbed at the Medieval Sourcebook


Images:

St. Nicholas Saves Three Innocents from Decapitation
Chapel of St Nicholas, Lower Church, Basilica di San Francesco, Assisi, Italy

St. Nicholas Rescues a Ship at Sea
Tres Riche Houresof the Duke de Berry
Cloisters, Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York.

St. Nicholas with the Three Boys in a Pickling Tub
Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York.

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