Who is Saint Nicholas?
Writer Adam C. English explores the life of the man behind the myth in his book 'The Saint Who Would Be Santa Claus.'
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Saint Nicholas is the same way. He's the kind of saint we can relate to. He's not writing long sermons or performing tremendous supernatural miracles. He is doing ordinary kinds of things.Skip to next paragraph
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The legends always have him in the trenches with the people, sometimes quite literally.
Most of the depictions of Nicholas depict him with briny salt in his beard. He's a working man saint. He's got brine in his beard, he's down there in the trenches, working with us. They depict that – him rolling up his sleeves and pitching in, getting in the ditch and pulling out an ox cart. That makes him all the more lovable.
Next to Mother Mary, there are more churches named after Nicholas than any other saint. In England, more than 500 churches alone. Only Mother Mary outnumbers his churches.
Q: Did he look like Santa Claus at all?
A: In the earliest images we have of him, he has a very stern, rigid look to his face. There's nothing warm and friendly about him at all.
And early on, he was known for his concerns and justice and civil action, protecting the people, not only for his warmth and generosity.
There's a little bit of that preserved in Santa Claus when he says he knows who's naughty and nice. Think about the lists. There's still a threat that he might leave a lump of coal.
Q: How did he inspire the Santa Claus story?
A: The tradition of Santa Claus really comes through early nineteenth century New York and the recovery of Dutch heritage. They're looking for heritage, tradition and roots, and to be Dutch is to celebrate Sinterklaas – give gifts on Saint Nicholas Day.
His day, December 6, had become associated with gift giving. By the 1100s, there are nuns in France making little toys, leaving them on the front doors of children and signing them as being from Saint Nicholas.
Introducing Sinterklaas is a way to introduce some Dutch heritage and to domesticate the Christmas tradition, make it safe for the family. At that time, Christmas had been a raucous affair with carousing and carolling in the streets.
Q: Why is it important to understand how Saint Nicholas became Santa Claus?
A: By the early 20th century, when you think about our standardized picture of Santa Claus, he's rosy-cheeked, grandfatherly and completely divested of any Christian symbolism. He's just a jolly gift giver. And when reading books about Nicholas and Santa Claus, it often sounds like Nicholas is the prologue.
I want to make the Santa Claus the epilogue to the story of Nicholas. If we can introduce Nicholas into Christmas celebrations, it will really enrich the season. You have a story of a real man who is doing good works, living a good life and being generous. What he's doing is really providing models for Christian living and action.
So often our Christmas traditions focus on giving gifts to family members and friends. He's giving gifts to people he doesn't know, people in dire need. When we bring Nicholas into the Christmas tradition, it will challenge us to go beyond gift-giving to family and friends and reach out to those we don't know who are in true need.
Randy Dotinga is a Monitor contributor.