Santa Claus. Saint Nick. Jolly Old Saint Nicholas. Are they all the same bearded guy with a "little round belly that shakes when he laughs like a bowl full of jelly?"
As Catholics and other Christians know well, for his name is on hundreds of their churches, there really was a Saint Nicholas. And he really was a generous gift-giver. But he didn't have all those accoutrements, like the red-and-white outfit, the reindeer and the elves.
So how did Saint Nicholas become Father Christmas?
Adam C. English, associate professor of religion at North Carolina's Campbell University, explores that question and much more in his new book "The Saint Who Would Be Santa Claus: The True Life and Trials of Nicholas of Myra."
In an interview, we talked about the Saint Nicholas of history, the evolution of Santa Claus, and the reasons why a saint from the fourth century can inspire us today.
Q: Who was Saint Nicholas in real life?
A: The historical Saint Nicholas was born around the late third century or early fourth century. He lived his life in what is now the southwest shores of Turkey. He served as a bishop, a Christian pastor of the church in Myra, doing good works of gift-giving and generosity, serving the people as a true civil servant. There are stories of him bartering with grain ships to get grain to save the starving people of Myra, going to the capitol to appeal for lower taxes, interfering in court cases and saving three men from beheading.
As a young man, he inherits gold from his parents, and he hears of a man in town who's become desperately poor and is thinking about selling off his own daughters. Nicholas bags up some of that gold and throws it through his window. It's used as a dowry for one of the daughters. He returns two times so the other daughters might be able to marry.
Q: What did it mean then to sell off one's daughters?
A: Prostitution. We have decrees dating back to the early days of the Roman empire trying to curb that activity and try to prevent parents from selling daughters into prostitution and children into slavery.
While it seems inhumane, those options become very live and real when your options are to starve or freeze to death. It gives us a glimpse into some of the hardships of the time.
Q: Was he martyred like so many other saints?
A: No. He lives to a ripe old age.
Part of what appeals to people about Nicholas is precisely the ordinariness of his story and his life. Going back to that fourth century, most of the stories were about saints [who] died for the faith, were martyred in grisly ways. Or performed supernatural miracles or spent their lives in the desert as hermits.
He is an ordinary guy, doing ordinary acts of charity and working on behalf of the people. He's a saint to whom people can relate. He becomes the patron saint of sailors and children and unwed women, bakers, brewers and apothecaries, perfumers. Everybody loves Saint Nicholas.
Q: He sounds a bit like the apostle Peter, a man who isn't in a sphere above everyone else. Does that sound right?
A: Peter is such a relatable saint precisely because he doubts, he denies knowing the Lord, he questions, he has all the failings. He is you and me. We have those same doubts and questions.
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.
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.