His beard and reputation are world famous. Miracles ascribed to him are legendary. Youngsters ponder his whereabouts and travel agenda, especially in December, knowing he’s not afraid to fly and he’s never run out of money. Born to wealthy parents in Patara, Turkey, when the population of Anatolia was mostly pagan, it’s said he took a special interest in three sisters. Too poor to have dowries, they were being forced into prostitution when, suddenly, three bags of gold were thrown down their chimneys, enough bait to attract husbands. The trio did not leave thank you notes behind, for the record, but anyone with a bulging sack of benevolence is bound to be popular. Faith and hope, St. Paul wrote to the Corinthians, are outweighed: “The greatest of these is charity.” Love for others is what always drove him, this Turk named Nicholas, which means “people’s victory.”
Devoted to good works, Saint Nicholas [270-310] was once Bishop of Myra (“Myrrh”), a town now called Demre. Anatolia, the territory of modern Turkey, has been the heartland of human civilization since 7,000 BC. Patara, to the west of Demre, had been visited by St. Paul and St. Luke in 55 AD on their way from Miletus to Jerusalem; perhaps from this early date, a Christian community was established at this major Roman Lycian port. Demre, a vital port on a dangerous part of the Turkish coastline, became part of the pilgrimage route from Venice and Constantinople to the Holy Land [Palestine]. This helped spread the cult of the saint, especially for seafarers who once worshiped the pagan god Poseidon. In 392, the Edict of Theodosius ruled that Christianity would be the state religion of the Empire. Large scale destruction of classical statues and temples began, and locals constructed houses of worship like the much restored church of St. Nicholas at Myra (Demre), whose foundations date back to the late 4th-5th centuries. Rocked by a religious seesaw, this church was enlarged by the Emperor Justinian in the 6th century, then destroyed in an Arab-Muslim raid in 1034, but rebuilt by Constantine IX in 1043.
During the Crusades, Catholic merchants sailed to Muslim countries to acquire relics for their own parishes. In May of 1087, several well-financed Italian groups were bidding on the bones of St.Nicholas when a boatload of Barese businessmen stole the remains and rowed them back to Apulia. The pugliese, about to lose to the wealthier Venetians, knew they would have a major tourist attraction if they grabbed San Nicola. The Cathedral built to honor the former bishop in Bari, Italy [in 1087] depicts the Turkish-born saint as a very dark-skinned, Middle Eastern male.
One of the most famous figures of Christendom, Nicholas is the patron saint of several countries including Russia, Greece, Germany, Austria, Belgium, Sicily, Loraine, etc. When the feast of Saint Nicholas (December 6th) was prohibited after the Protestant reformation of the 16th century, this miracle-worker retained his popularity. In 1664, when the Netherlanders relocated to New York [New Amsterdam], they carried their customs with them. Dutch youngsters awaited a visit from Sinter Klaas (Saint Nicholas) and presents he’d leave in their wooden shoes on the eve of December 5. As the appealing Dutch custom of celebrating the feast of Saint Nicholas by giving gifts to children spread throughout this nation, “Sinter Klaas” became “Santa Claus” in the United States.
This philanthropist, depicted as a white-bearded old man with a long caped coat [or sometimes in red Episcopal robes], remained a moralistic figure: rewarding good children or punishing unruly ones. Washington Irving’s book — A History of New York, From the Beginning of the World to the End of the Dutch Dynasty, by Diedrich Knickerbocker — depicted Saint Nicholas as a European, Caucasian-featured figure in a broad-brimmed hat who smoked a long pipe, associating his character with the then-familiar Dutch patron saint of New Amster-am. An illustrated poem by John Pintart that portrayed a slim Saint Nicholas further distanced him from his Middle Eastern origins; no longer pictured on a donkey, he guided a sleigh drawn by one reindeer until 1821.
Drawing on sources and his imagination, another New Yorker, Reverend Clement Clark Moore created the Santa that Americans know. In 1833, “A Visit From Saint Nicholas” introduced Santa Claus for the first time as a kind, plump, jolly Caucasian elf greeting readers with his twinkling eyes, rosy cheeks, and dimples. Moore’s Saint Nicholas smoked a pipe, navigated an airborne sleigh pulled by eight tiny reindeer, and made his entrance via the chimney. An enthusiastic house guest sent Moore’s poem to a local newspaper editor. Overnight, verses about a jolly old elf who piloted a reindeer-drawn sleigh began to be recited by families. After awhile, the Church urged Christians to merge this “children’s festival” with the Nativity. An Americanized Saint Nicholas, consequently, began making his housecalls during the night of December 24. December 6th, if you’re motivated to be generous, especially to children who have lost a parent, give in to it.