03 December 2017

How the real gift-giving
Saint Nicholas of Myra
became Santa Claus

An icon of Saint Nicholas in a church in Crete … how did he become Santa Claus? (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2017)

Patrick Comerford

When Jerpoint Abbey was founded in Co Kilkenny during the reign of Henry II, it was important to persuade local people that the monastery was of divine origin and had supernatural powers. To support their claims, the Cistercian monks needed a saint buried there who had a reputation as a miracle worker.

The story developed that Jerpoint was the burial place of Saint Nicholas who had lived in Myra, in present-day Turkey, until he died on 6 December 343.

In 809, Myra was captured by Harun al-Rashid and his Muslim force. It fell again to Muslim conquerors between 1081 and 1118. Taking advantage of the confusion, sailors from the port of Bari in southern Italy collected half the skeleton of Saint Nicholas in Myra in 1087, leaving the rest of his remains in the grave. The remaining remains were collected a decade later by Venetian sailors during the First Crusade (1096-1099).

The first part of the body arrived in Bari in 1087. The remaining bones were taken to Venice in 1100.

Saint Nicholas Church on Gemile Island … was this is true burial place of Saint Nicholas? (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

Another grave attributed to Saint Nicholas also exists on the small Turkish island of Gemile, between Fethiye and Rhodes, and some historians say this is his original grave.

But a local story in Co Kilkenny says a band of Irish-Norman knights from Jerpoint travelled to the Holy Land with the Crusades, seized Saint Nicholas’s remains as they headed back to Ireland, and buried his bones in Jerpoint.

Another version says a Norman family called de Frainet or Frenet removed Saint Nicholas’s remains from Myra to Bari in 1169 and later brought the relics to be buried in 1200 in Jerpoint. A graveslab from the 1300s has an image of a cleric, said to be Saint Nicholas, and two other heads said to represent the crusaders who brought his relics to Ireland.

Finding the true saint

The mediaeval church of Saint Nicholas in Aghios Nikolaos (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

This month, on 6 December, the Church commemorates Saint Nicholas, Bishop of Myra, who was also one of the fathers of the Council of Nicaea and became the role model for Santa Claus.

Saint Nicholas, whose name means ‘Victory of the People,’ was born in Myra in Lycia, now known as Demre, near Antalya in present-day Turkey. He had a reputation as a secret giver of gifts, such as putting coins in the shoes of poor children, and because of this, perhaps, he was transformed into our present-day Santa Claus.

King’s College Cambridge … founded as the King’s College of Our Lady and Saint Nicholas (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2017)

Saint Nicholas is also the patron saint of sailors, seafarers, merchants, archers, pawnbrokers, children and students, and the patron saint of Amsterdam, Liverpool and other port cities. King’s College, Cambridge, known for the Service of Nine Lessons and Carols on Christmas Eve, was founded in 1441 as the King’s College of Our Lady and Saint Nicholas in Cambridge.

Legend says that young Nicholas was sent to Alexandria as a student. On the voyage, he is said to have saved the life of a sailor who fell from the ship’s rigging in a storm. In one version, on their arrival back in Myra Nicholas took the sailor to church. The previous Bishop of Myra had just died, and the freshly-returned, heroic Nicholas was elected his successor.

The Venetian Cathedral of Saint Nicholas on the Fortezza in Rethymnon, Crete … turned into the Sultan Ibraim Han Mosque by the Turks in the 17th century (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

Another story tells how during a famine, a butcher lured three small children into his house, slaughtered and butchered them, and put their bodies in a pork barrel to sell as meat pies. Saint Nicholas, who heard of the horrific plans, raised the three boys back to life through his prayers.

Saint Nicholas of Myra Church in inner city Dublin (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

The best-known story tells how a poor man had three daughters but could not afford proper dowries for them, meaning they would remain unmarried or become prostitutes. Saint Nicholas secretly went to their house under cover of darkness and threw three purses filled with gold, one for each daughter, through the window – or down the chimney.

Defender of the Church

The minaret of the Nerantze mosque in Rethymnon … the mosque became Saint Nicholas Church in 1925 (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2017)

I prefer the stories that link Saint Nicholas with the defence of true doctrine. In the year 325, the Emperor Constantine convened the Council of Nicaea, attended by more than 300 bishops, to debate the nature of the Holy Trinity.

It was one of the most intense theological debates in the early Church. Arius from Alexandria was teaching that Christ was the Son of God but was not equal to God the Father. As Arius argued his position at length, Nicholas became agitated, crossed the room, and slapped Arius across the face.

The shocked bishops stripped Nicholas of his episcopal robes, chained him and jailed him. In the morning, the bishops found his chains on the floor and Nicholas dressed in his episcopal robes, quietly reading the Scriptures. Constantine ordered his release, and Nicholas was reinstated as the Bishop of Myra.

As the debate went on, the Council of Nicaea agreed with his views, deciding against Arius and agreeing on the Nicene Creed, which remains the symbol of our faith.

Saint Nicholas and his churches

Aghios Nikoloas in Crete takes its name from Saint Nicholas (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

Saint Nicholas is associated with churches throughout Greece, and has given his name to the harbour town of Aghios Nikolaos in Crete. The town is built around an inner lagoon, Voulismeni, and local people try to convince visiting tourists that the lake is fathomless.

The town takes its name from the tiny 11th century church of Aghios Nikólaos (Saint Nicholas). Many years ago, a visit to this Church of Aghios Nikólaos, with its icons of the saint, was enough to end the doubts about Santa Claus that were beginning to emerge in hearts of two small children.

Saint Nicholas also gave his name to the monastic island of Saint Nicholas, now known as Gemile Island, close to the Ölüdeniz Lagoon and about 9 km south of Fethiye on the Anatolian coast of Turkey. The island is just beneath the town of Levessi or Kayaköy.

Saint Nicholas Island had numerous churches, chapels and schools, and was home to a significant Greek-speaking population until the last century. Then, like their neighbours in the nearby mainland town of Levessi, they were forced to leave their homes in the horrific wave of ‘ethnic cleansing’ that swept Anatolia in the 1920s.

The people of Levessi and their story inspired the novel Birds Without Wings (2004) by Louis de Bernières, his prequel to Captain Corelli’s Mandolin (1993).

Tourists pile onto the island every day during the holiday season as part of a sailing tour of the Twelve Islands off Fethiye. But few notice the ruins that were once family homes and churches or ask about the original inhabitants, why they were forced to leave, or why their churches and chapels no longer echo with the Divine Liturgy.

From Europe to America

Nicholas Street was the High Street of mediaeval Limerick … the site of Saint Nicholas Church is on the left (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2017)

As the patron of sailors, Saint Nicholas was popular among mediaeval seafarers. He gave his name to churches in many port cities, including Saint Nicholas Within-the-Walls and Saint Nicholas Without-the-Walls in Dublin, Saint Nicholas Church on the mediaeval High Street of Limerick, now known as Nicholas Street, churches in Adare, Co Limerick, and Dundalk, Co Louth, and the Collegiate Church of Saint Nicholas in Galway.

A mediaeval archaeological site close to the site of Saint Nicholas Church in Limerick (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2017)

Columbus named a port in Haiti after Saint Nicholas on 6 December 1492 – perhaps recalling his stop-off in Galway and a visit to Saint Nicholas Collegiate Church. But how did the kindly Bishop Nicholas end up as a roly-poly red-suited American symbol for a secular holiday festivity and commercial busyness?

The first European seafarers to arrive in North America brought their devotion to Saint Nicholas with them: the Vikings dedicated a cathedral to him in Greenland; centuries later in Florida, the Spaniards named an early settlement Saint Nicholas Ferry – now known as Jacksonville.

But there is scant evidence to support traditions that Saint Nicholas was popular in the Dutch New Netherlands.

An unhistorical history

Saint Nicholas Church in Dundalk, Co Louth (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

After the American Revolution, New Yorkers remembered the colony’s nearly-forgotten Dutch roots. John Pintard, who formed the New York Historical Society in 1804, promoted Saint Nicholas as the patron of his society and his city. Washington Irving joined the society in 1809 and published the satirical fiction, Knickerbocker’s History of New York, with numerous references to a jolly Saint Nicholas character – not a saintly bishop, but an elfin Dutch burgher with a clay pipe.

And so, began the legends about Saint Nicholas and New Amsterdam: that the first Dutch emigrant ship had a figurehead of Saint Nicholas; that Saint Nicholas Day was observed in the colony; that the first church was dedicated to him; and that Saint Nicholas comes down chimneys to bring gifts.

Saint Nicholas Church in Adare, Co Limerick (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

Inside Saint Nicholas Church, Adare, Co Limerick (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2017)

The New York Historical Society held its first Saint Nicholas anniversary dinner on 6 December 1810, and in an image by Alexander Anderson for the occasion, Saint Nicholas was shown in a gift-giving role with children’s treats in stockings hanging at a fireplace.

Other artists and writers continued the transformation of Saint Nicholas from a saintly bishop to an elf-like jolly, rotund gift-giver. In 1863, the cartoonist Thomas Nast began a series of drawings in Harper’s Weekly, based on the descriptions in Washington Irving’s fiction and Clement Clarke Moore’s poem, ‘A Visit from Saint Nicholas’ or ‘The Night Before Christmas.’ These drawings established a rotund Santa with flowing beard, fur garments, and a clay pipe, and the saint’s name shifted to Santa Claus – a phonetic alteration from the German Sankt Niklaus and the Dutch Sinterklaas.

By the end of the 1920s, a standard American Santa – life-sized, dressed in a red, fur-trimmed suit – was being portrayed by popular illustrators. In 1931, Coca Cola began 35 years of Santa advertisements that popularised and established this Santa as an icon of contemporary commercial culture.

Santa’s commercial success led to the North American Santa Claus being exported around the world, displacing the European Saint Nicholas who and his identity as a bishop and saint.

Saint, Santa and refugees

How was Saint Nicholas transformed into the modern Santa Claus? … a shop display in Limerick (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2017)

The metamorphosis of Saint Nicolas into the commercial Santa Claus recently came to his home town of Demre, the modern Turkish town near the ruins of ancient Myra.

Saint Nicholas is a popular Orthodox saint and the city attracts many Russian tourists. The Russian government donated a bronze statue of the saint to the city in 2000, and was it erected on the square in front of the mediaeval Church of Saint Nicholas.

But in 2005, the mayor replaced the statue with by a red-suited plastic Santa Claus. After Russian protests, the statue was returned, but to a secluded corner near the church. A third statue was erected showing Saint Nicholas as a modern-day Turk – although the Turks did not arrive in Anatolia until the 11th century. The church is being restored, and the Turkish Ministry of Culture has given limited permission for the Orthodox Church to celebrate the Divine Liturgy there.

But as Christmas approaches, I cannot forget the children of Levessi and Saint Nicholas Island, whose descendants have a very different idea of a stay-at-home Christmas.

Santa and the elves … more about Coca Cola than the Council of Nicaea (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

(Revd Canon Professor) Patrick Comerford is Priest-in-Charge of the Rathkeale and Kilnaughtin Group of Parishes. This feature was first published in December 2017 in the ‘Church Review’ (Dublin and Glendalough) and the ‘Diocesan Magazine’ (Cashel, Ferns and Leighlin)

The picturesque modern Church of Saint Nicholas on a tiny islet off Georgioupoli in Crete (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2017)

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