Adam C. English Reveals the Historic Saint Nick

Saint Nicholas (270-343) depicted in an engraving from Diodore Rahoult, Italy 1886. Fototeca Gilardi/Getty Images

The modern Santa Claus bears almost no resemblance to his historic origins as a fourth-century Christian bishop -- and his continued evolution reveals a great deal about modern culture.

I recently explored the topic in the How Stuff Works article "The Many Faces of Santa: From St. Nicholas to Saxy Santa." In researching the topic, I interviewed Adam C. English, Chair of the Department of Christian Studies at Campbell University and author of "Christmas: Theological Anticipations" and "The Saint Who Would Be Santa Claus: The True Life and Trials of Nicholas of Myra."

He provided me with so much great content, I had to share the full interview here. Enjoy...

Broadly speaking, how does the historic Saint Nicholas differ from the modern Americanized Santa Claus?

First and most obviously, Santa has been scrubbed of any and all religious identity. I think that is something people notice when they see the ‘European’ ‘old-world’ St. Nicks, who are dressed like bishops, with a miter, stoll, ecclesial vestments, a crozier staff, and many times wearing a crucifix or cross on the neck.

Saint Nicholas, 14th century. Found in the collection of the State Tretyakov Gallery, Moscow.
Heritage Images/Getty

In contrast, Santa has been ‘domesticated,’ ‘commercialized’, and ‘universalized’ (or secularized, depending on your viewpoint). The miter has been softened into a floppy fur trimmed stocking cap. The vestments have been turned into a red, fur suit with white trimming. The stoll into the big black belt, and the crozier staff into a large sack of toys. Even his name has undergone change. Santa Claus is an Americanization of the Dutch Sinterklaas, which is just Saint Nicholas. His other name, Kriss Kringle, is the Americanization of the German/Austrian Kristkindl, ‘Christ Child.’ Martin Luther attempted to replace Nicholas as the gift-giver with the baby Jesus – the Christams gifts come from the Christ child. Well, with Kriss Kringle, the religious significance important to Luther has again been lost.

The first depiction of Nicholas in America by the New York Historical Society showed him as a stern bishop in the Eurpoean fashion, but within fifty years he transformed into the magical elf who drives a sleigh pulled by reindeer and drops down chimneys.

Let me add a qualification. I don’t want to be overly dour or pessimistic about all this. Christmas has always been a blend of sacred and secular, popular and solemn, commercial and familial. I don’t find evidence that ‘once upon a time’ Christmas was a pure Christian remembrance of the birth of the Savior and now it has become a rampantly secularized greed-grab of presents.

This painting depicts a legend of St. Nicholaus saving the three pilgrims by calming the waters.
Oskar Poss/ullstein bild via Getty Images

In pre-Christian times, Greeks celebrated Lenaea, Romans the Saturnalia in late December as well as the Brumalia. Germans hunted and feasted at Yuletide, the Irish had Wren Day. And really all western cultures have observed mid-winter festivals, times of merriment, gift-giving, decoration, and costume wearing.

Because Nicholas’ feast day was December 6, it was one of the first celebrations of the season. St. Nicholas day kicked off the party. So, early on it got tied in with the seasonal cheer.

One followup, a number of professional Santas that I have talked to, men who put on the costume and make Santa appearances, say they have been getting more and more requests from churches and groups asking if they would come dressed as St. Nicholas and play the role of Nicholas, not Santa. Which might indicate that people are looking for something beyond the superficial excitement of the north pole elf – they are looking for a character with historical reality and deeply rooted traditions.

Do any similarities between the two remain?

The gift giving. St. Nicholas has long been associated with gift giving. In the 1100s nuns in France were leaving little treats at the homes of children with notes “from St. Nicholas”. And, of course, the secret, nighttime delivery of gifts is Santa’s specialty.

Saint Nicholas is celebrated on Dec. 6, but where in the world would we turn if we wished to direct our celebrations at his remains?

In the Netherlands and elsewhere in Europe, the focus of gift-giving and such is St. Nicholas Day, as opposed to Christmas Day. In the Netherlands, the gift exchanges occur on Dec 5, actually, and Dec 6 is reserved for family meals and get-togethers. Throughout the season, Dutch children leave their shoes in front of their bedroom doors in hopes of small surprise gifts left to be discovered first thing in the morning. If parents wish to celebrate St. Nicholas Day, have your children leave their shoes out and the traditional gifts are chocolate coins, nuts, oranges, and maybe a small toy.

'The Saint Who Would Be Santa Claus: The True Life and Trials of Nicholas of Myra' by Adam C. English
Baylor University Press

If the question is instead about the location of Nicholas’s remains, that has become a ‘bone of contention’ as it were. Nicholas was originally buried in Myra, present day Demre, Turkey, in a church built to house his remains. In 1087, sailors from Bari, Italy landed, broke open the tomb, and forcefully took the bones back to Bari, landing May 9 (another feast day of Nicholas). Ten years later sailors from Venice made their way to the church and scooped of the leftover fragments of bones and took them back to Venice. Other fragments (of questionable origin) can be seen in churches across France, Germany, Russia, Canada, and even America.

Controversially, archaeologists working on the ruins of the church in Demre, Turkey, are hoping to find an undisturbed, hidden tomb with the bones of Nicholas still intact. They are claiming (without any historical or documentary evidence to support the claim, I might add) that it could be possible that the sailors from Bari and Venice robbed the wrong tomb, and that the real tomb is still in Demre. I concede that it is possible, but it is not very probable at all.

Of all the cultural celebrations incorporating Saint Nicholas, which remembers him the most as he was?

That’s a tough question to answer. The cultural and religious traditions are always evolving and changing. Santa Claus is always evolving!

St Nicholas saving three innocents from execution in an 1888 painting by Ilya Repin.
Buyenlarge/Getty Images

I don’t think Nicholas would oppose our practice of family gift exchange. But, I do think he would challenge us to go one step farther. Nicholas gave gifts to people he did not know or owe anything to. And he gave to those in serious need. So, his challenge to us would be, in addition to giving gifts to family members, find ways to anonymously give gifts to those in need at this time of year.

But, I would also add that Nicholas also would challenge us to go beyond the simple gift. A number of the stories from the life of Nicholas involve him opposing injustice and defending justice.

I think Nicholas would have us investigate further and ask about what can be done to improve the long-term quality of life of those who find themselves in need at this time of year.

About the Author: Robert Lamb spent his childhood reading books and staring into the woods — first in Newfoundland, Canada and then in rural Tennessee. There was also a long stretch in which he was terrified of alien abduction. He earned a degree in creative writing. He taught high school and then attended journalism school. He wrote for the smallest of small-town newspapers before finally becoming a full-time science writer and podcaster. He’s currently a senior writer at HowStuffWorks and has co-hosted the science podcast Stuff to Blow Your Mind since its inception in 2010. In his spare time, he enjoys traveling with his wife Bonnie, discussing dinosaurs with his son Bastian and crafting the occasional work of fiction.