[Nyerges is an author / lecturer / educator who has written such books as “Extreme Simplicity,” “How to Survive Anywhere,” “Guide to Wild Foods,” and other books. Information about his books and classes is available at www.SchoolofSelf-Reliance, or Box 41834, Eagle Rock,CA 90041]
A few years ago, I recall a Christian woman complaining about the fact that “Santa Claus” has gained a more prominent role during the Christmas season than the Jesus child. She argued that this was a sign that “we” have allowed secularism – and maybe even paganism – to creep into the Christmas tradition. I didn’t jump into the conversation because it would have been a very long conversation. I would have started with the fact that many of today’s Christmas commemorations predate Christianity. And I would have addressed her notion that “Santa Claus” is from the so-called “pagan” tradition. Really?
So then, who is Santa Claus? Is he just a fictitious jolly man to make us feel happy during the dark of December? No, not really. There was an actual historical figure upon which “Santa Claus” is based.
Nikolas of Myra was a 4th century Bishop in the Catholic church of Asia Minor (modern-day Demre, Turkey). He was born on March 15, 270, in Pataya, Lycia, in Asia Minor, what is now modern Turkey. At that time, however, the area was culturally Greek, and was politically a part of the Roman diocese of Asia. Nikolas was the only child of wealthy Greek parents, who both died in an epidemic when Nikolas was young. As a result, Nikolas inherited much from his parents, and was then raised by his uncle (also named Nikolas), who was a Bishop of Patara, and who trained the young Nikolas into priesthood.
Nikolas was said to be religious from a very early age, and he always chose to fast on Wednesdays and Fridays.
Because of his outspoken beliefs, he was persecuted by the Romans and was imprisoned during the persecution of Diocletian. Remember, the new religion of Judeo-Christianity did not find favor in the hierarchy of the Roman empire.
In case you never heard of the “persecution of Diocletian” – also known as “the Great Persecution” -- it was the Roman Empire’s most severe of the persecutions against Christians, simply because they were Christians. In 303, four emperors issued a series of dictatorial laws which essentially did away with any legal rights of Christians. The edicts demanded that the Christians comply with traditional Roman “religious” practices, meaning, giving sacrifices to the various Roman gods. The implementation of these edits was weakest in the British colonies where the Empire had the least sway, and the most severe in the Eastern provinces, where Nikolas lived.
Since Nikolas refused to worship the Roman gods, he was imprisoned, and suffered hardship, hunger, and cold for about 5 years. Then Constantine came into power, who nominally became a Christian, and ended the persecutions in 313, and Nikolas was released. Constantine is known for “Christianizing” the Roman Empire, and co-opted and re-named all the Mythraic (“pagan”) holidays so they could all now be regarded as Christian holidays.
Shortly after his return to his homeland in 317 A.D., Nikolas became the Bishop of Myra.
He was later invited to attend the First Council of Nicaea in 325, the famous council where much of the modern dogma of the Catholic church was determined. Nikolas of Myra was one of many bishops to participate in the Council at Constantine’s request. He is listed as the 151st attendee at the Council.
At the Council, Nikolas was a staunch anti-Arian. Arius of Alexandria held the position that the “Son of God” did not always exist, but was created by the Father. Nikolas disagreed with Arius, and defended the developing orthodox Christian viewpoint. According to stories told, Nikolas got so angry at Arius that he punched him in the face! Really? Proto-Santa Claus punches a fellow man of the cloth? That’s what the historians tell us happened!
Back in his homeland, Nikolas developed the reputation of being a generous bishop. He inherited wealth from his parents, and he would sometimes give gold and other valuables to those who he learned were in need. In one case, it is said that Nikolas tossed a bag of gold coins into a needy family’s yard, anonymously. Those who wrote about Nikolas said that he was a humble man, and didn’t want to be seen giving money to people, so he did it secretly. He was well-known for wanting to give such gifts in private when he traveled the countryside, and so children were told to go to sleep quickly or Nikolas would not come with gifts. This, apparently, is the origin of telling children to go to sleep or that Santa will not come.
In one story, he apparently snuck into the home of a family where the three daughters of a poor man were about to get married. Nikolas put some gold into the stockings which the girls left by the fire to dry. This, apparently, is the origin of hanging up stockings on Christmas eve. Nikolas was also well known for the gifts that he gave to newly married couples during the already established Christmas season.
And so it goes. Nikolas was a complex man, part of the new Catholic tradition which now celebrated the birth of Jesus on the already-observed winter solstice. (Early Judeo-Christians did not celebrate the birth of Jesus, a date that has been lost to history. Some historians argue that the birth of Jesus occurred in either May or September, but everyone agrees it was not December 25.)
He died on December 6, 343,which is to this day known as “Saint Nicholas Day.” Upon his death, he was buried in the cathedral of Myra. He is revered as a saint in most sects of Christianity and is especially honored in the Eastern Orthodox Church.
By the year 450, churches in Greece and Asia Minor were being named in honor of Nicholas. (His name is normally spelled “Nicholas” in most modern English renderings of his name.) He was officially honored as a saint by the Eastern Catholic Church in 800. December 6 began to be celebrated as Bishop Nicholas Day in France by the 1200s.
As time went on, when ever someone received a mysterious gift, it would often be attributed to Saint Nicholas, which helped to grow his mythology.
The Dutch called Saint Nicholas “Sinterklass,” which is the most likely manner in which the name Saint Nicholas gradually evolved into “Santa Claus.” Along the way, Saint Nicholas was given some of the attributes of Odin, the Norse God, who could travel through the sky and who had a secret home somewhere around the north pole. Come to think of it, even the Superman story borrowed from Odin. Remember how Superman sometimes goes to a secret cavern in the Northern coldlands and converses with his ancestors via ice crystals?
The image continued to morph over the years, with the Coco Cola company giving the world a somewhat sanitized and plumper Saint Nicholas / Santa Claus with their early 20th century ads. There we began to see the fatter bearded man in the red suit.
Today, the man you see in the mall is the modern condensation of fact and myth, embodying the generosity of one Catholic Bishop, the good will of all who gave gifts in his stead, and bits of the mythology of Odin. And I was really feeling good about that, thinking that the mall is at least one last place where you can go and take your picture with Santa for free – except, in most malls these days, you can’t! Yes children, even Santa has to make a living.