Monday, December 5, 2011

12 Days of Christmas Traditions ~ St Nicholas or Santa Claus?

Welcome to Day 5 of my 12 Days of Christmas Traditions series. I hope you have enjoyed reading the last few posts.  Today I am so very lucky to have Ann Nichols guest posting. Ann is the author of the site St. Nicholas Churches Around the World.” 

12 Days of Christmas Traditions ~ St Nicholas or Santa Claus?
We met Santa and Mrs Claus at Disneyland one year...they were such a lovely couple!

Today Ann will be sharing her thoughts about the man St Nicholas...or as some may call him, Santa Claus!

12 Days of Christmas Traditions ~ St Nicholas or Santa Claus?

The following are excerpts from, (Introduction), by Ann Nichols.

St. Nicholas and Christmas - all year long

Please visit Ann’s site where she is currently posting on “St. Nicholas Churches Around the World.” Ann’s posting for tomorrow – St. Nicholas Day – will be of the very church location where St. Nicholas served as bishop! 

Please contact Ann if you would like to use any part of the book or have other questions. She is such a wonderful person and I am sure you will love visiting her amazing site.

Without more ado I give you this except from Ann’s, St. Nicholas and Christmas:

In our day, with Christmas exceedingly commercialized, learning about the real man who inspired the legend of Santa Claus is not only wise but fun.

It is my great privilege to relive the events of St. Nicholas’s life and to explore his unique relationship to today’s beloved celebration of Christmas. It is an adventure, and as the meaning of the word implies, not for the faint of heart.

So grab hold of your reindeer reins and let’s go!

Let's start with this man, Nicholas of Myra. Who is he?

Nicholas of Myra

Artist: The Priest Pefki

He’s called Hagios Nikolaos (Greek), Sint Nikolaas or Sinterklaas (Dutch), Saint Nicholas (English), Father Christmas (English), St. Nikolaus (Austrian and German), Samichlaus (Swiss-German), Christkindl (German), Kriss Kringle (German-U.S.A.), Père Noel (French), Papá Noёl (Spanish), St. Nick (U.S.A.), Santa Claus (U.S.A.), Babbo Natale (Italian), Joulupukki (Suomi), Sw. Mikolaj (Polish), Sviatyij Mykolai (Ukraine). And he’s the patron saint of children, merchants, sailors, pawnbrokers, thieves (because in the middle ages these were often mischievous students traveling between their home and their school located at quite some distance who were not above stealing from farmers and merchants as they went!), bankers, Russia, Greece, Sicily, Lorraine, numerous cities in Holland, Germany, Switzerland, Italy and according to Washington Irving’s 1809 book, Knickerbocker’s History of New York, the patron saint of that city too. 

These are just some of the appellations and roles that have mingled with the actual life of the man who answered to the name Nicholas, and who lived during the second half of the third century and the first half of the fourth. Only a very special man could have produced the wealth of legends and myths that surround the spirit of his life. Studies into Nicholas of Myra and his times have shown that he was, indeed, a remarkable man. 

But who was he really? 

Let's get to know the “real” St Nicholas by answering some commonly asked questions about him. 

Why is it believed that St. Nicholas gave gifts to children? 

For one thing, he was a person who gave, not only to children but to all, and such stories, during a time when kindness was probably in short supply, have come down to us. There exists extant written documentation from the 9th century concerning the fact that he actually provided dowries for three impoverished sisters—The Account of the Three Destitute Maidens. In today’s terms this would be equivalent to a single person giving away, within a matter of weeks, three fully furnished homes plus funds to live on for many years. 

This thought provoking panting is found at the Basilica of Saint Nicholas Bari site (A particularly wonderful site which I recommend to all!). It depicts a version of St. Nicholas giving bags of gold to the "Three Destitute Maidens."

Because of his background, St. Nicholas was a well-to-do bishop—although it was a wealth he continually strove to give away. This was during a time of runaway inflation and price controls that make modern day Black Market activities seem “white.”

Why is Nicholas a jolly-looking elf to some and a gaunt and aged sage to others?

Many reasons exist for this, including the various art forms through the centuries which represented him. One of the most logical reasons is that before his imprisonment, during the time of Diocletian’s persecutions (303 – 311), he was indeed a jolly-looking person. But after many years spent in a Roman prison and at least a year of torture, the thin and older saint of the icons and other religious lore emerges.

File:St Nicholas Icon Sinai 13th century.jpg

Image courtesy: Wikimedia Commons

13th c St. Nicholas Icon located at St. Catherine's Monastery, Sinai, Egypt

It was the nineteenth and twentieth century’s American artists Thomas Nast and Haddon Sundblom who were instrumental in bringing forth the idea of him as a jolly elf or grandfatherly figure. 

Thomas Nast's January 1, 1881 jolly elf first appeared in Harper's Weekly

Image courtesy: Picture History

This much loved Santa (my childhood favorite) first appeared in December of 1931


 How did the idea of St. Nicholas flying through the sky in a sleigh come about?

It could have started with the miracles God wrought through him—both when alive and after his death—where he is purported to have “flown through the sky” to calm tempests, to warn or help sailors upon the sea and others in distress.

Fra Angelico's, Stories of St. Nicholas of Bari
Image courtesy: St. Nicholas Center

Bucci di Lorenzo
St. Nicholas of Myra Rebuking the Tempest
Image courtesy: St. Nicholas Center
Ashmolean Museum Oxford, England UK

For folklorists the Norse god, Odin, flying through the sky on his charger, was just a short stop on the way to Santa and his reindeer.

Image courtesy: Wikipedia

And the North American myth created about the saint—and the celebrations surrounding Christmas in general—by, among others, the three American storytellers, Clement Clark Moore, Washington Irving and L. Frank Baum did their bit in forming legends.

Clement Clark Moore (1779-1863)
Image courtesy: Wikipedia

This image is from Moore’s original handwritten poem, “A Visit From Saint Nicholas,” written in 1822 as a gift to his children. 

So, how did a man named Nicholas from Myra come to be known as “Santa Claus” more than 1500 years later and some 5,000 miles away in the far-off, as yet “undiscovered” land on the other side of the vast unexplored ocean?

And how is it that that same man came to present today’s parents with one of the most difficult questions their children ever ask: “Is Santa Claus real?”

Next to “Where do babies come from?” this is perhaps the question 21st century parents most dread hearing. They might even dislike it more. All parents know where babies come from, but who exactly St. Nicholas, or his alter ego, Santa Claus, is—that’s unknown territory. While the real reason the jolly old saint is so closely associated with Christmas is even further from 21st century understanding.

My research into St. Nicholas’s life resembled the children’s game of telephone. To get to the beginning I had to start at the end. As with the game of telephone, a rather muddled up one at that! That meant back-tracking from the jolly, grandfatherly figure of Santa Claus who rides through the sky in a sled pulled by reindeer to finally meet the 3rd century man from the land of Lycia in Asia Minor who was, during his life, an archbishop in the one Church. The church had not fragmented into various denominations at the time that St. Nicholas lived; it was undivided and one which means that St. Nicholas is everyone’s saint.

Even though quite an expanse along the human calendar of events separates us of today from St. Nicholas’s time on earth we have seen that clues were left as to his real character. So the question then becomes: Is the relatively modern legend of Santa Claus what we want to teach our children? Or is it the actual man who did so many wonderful things during his long life—and many say afterward—that people told and retold stories about him? Even more, do we want to teach our children the reason St. Nicholas is so associated with the celebration of Christmas?

This is not to say that the Santa Claus legend should be thrown out the window.

Definitely not.

The myth that has developed—particularly in North America since the 19th century—and the real man come together in an interesting mix of truth and fiction. Indeed, Santa was such a delightful modern myth to grow up with, I’m not sure I’d want any child to miss that “magic.” Most people of faith would agree that God gave us imaginations so we might more clearly “see” and “understand” Him. Myths are one of the tools of this process. However, as soon as a child begins to question Santa’s existence, the facts about the man who inspired the 19th century legend should be told truthfully and completely.

In order to do this we have to get to know the real St. Nicholas; the man behind the myth!

Hi All! Ann here! I hope you enjoyed this except from St. Nicholas and Christmas. It is a vast work that has taken me over 12 years of research and writing; but it has been a labor of love. It was inspired when my own children – now grown – once asked me about Santa Claus… I was a fulltime mother and homemaker (and part time novelist) but I went on a quest to find out who St. Nicholas really is. It was a life changing journey! 

Many thanks to Natasha for her beautiful blog and for being such a lovely soul who loves Christmas and everything to do with the celebration that changed the world! 

Happy St. Nicholas Eve and a very Merry Christmas to all! 


Thank you so very Ann for allowing me to share this information about St Nicholas. You know that I love visiting your site and I am so grateful to you for helping to keep the Spirit of Christmas Alive for so many!

Please link up your Santa Claus and St Nicholas posts today! You can post an old post, a new post, a Pinterest Post...anything to do with Santa, St Nick or Father Christmas!

Thanks also to you, my dear Christmas friends, for visiting today. I hope you have been enjoying the 12 Days of Christmas Traditions series. Please be sure to come back tomorrow, after you have visited Ann's post about St Nicholas of course. I will be sharing some fun Christmas stocking ideas!

In the meantime, you'd better be good...
Santa Claus is Coming to Town!

Best Christmas wishes,


Please join me each weekend for the Say G'day Saturday Linky Party!
You can also visit me at PINTERESTTWITTER, GOOGLE+


  1. Hi Natasha!
    Your site is so inspiring... and packed full of wonderful Christmas cheer! Thanks so much for having me be a part of such beauty, knowledge and fun!
    Happy first day of summer to you!!
    (And Happy St. Nicholas Eve too!)

  2. Thanks for the history of Santa, Natasha. I just joined this Linky. I have so many blogs it's not easy to keep track of me, ha ha. I am Blessed Holidays and Babies Blog :) This is so fun!

  3. I certainly enjoyed this post about Santa. Very informative.

    Thanks to Ann for all the researh on Santa and allowing you to share. I also have enjoyed her tours of the different St. Nicholas Churches around the world.


  4. I love visiting Ann's blog! She is so knowledgable and I love history. Great job Ann!! Merry Christmas

  5. Wonderful post Natasha; very fun and informative! I have linked up today. I hope my post qualifies. Thanks for hosting and have a wonderful day.


  6. Wonderful post! I've visited Ann's blog and all of her lovely St. Nicholas Churches from around the world. She's done an outstanding job of telling the St. Nicholas story. God bless!

  7. I love learning the meaning behind all that we celebrate, and this was a wonderful read! ... I love the encouragement to share the reality of such a giving soul, when they get older ~ it may help them to keep the real meaning of celebration and giving alive!! xo HHL (Celia)

  8. Thanks Ann, Thanks Natasha,
    It is always great to learn more about St. Nicholas...Happy Saint Nicholas Day to both of you!

  9. So fun to read this all! Yesterday we've celebrated St. Nicholas' Eve (Sinterklaas) here in the Netherlands. I'm gonna follow your blog, that's for sure! I've started a December daily on my blog, so maybe I can use some inspiration every now and than! Oh, how I love Christmastime!!!!

  10. What a beautiful and inspiring post. I love your picture in Disney and the children are so cute! I enjoyed reading so much, thanks for sharing this great post for this beautiful holliday of the Christian world, we're so blessed with the birth of Jesus. Lots of hugs to you Natasha.

  11. Thank you for sharing all the wonderful information and history about St. Nicholas, Natasha!


  12. So many wonderful Santas here, and the history attached is very interesting.


Christmas is forever, not for just one day,
for loving, sharing, giving, are not to put away
like bells and lights and tinsel, in some box upon a shelf.
The good you do for others is good you do yourself...
Norman Wesley Brooks, "Let Every Day Be Christmas," 1976

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