St. Nicholas is the Saint better known as "Santa Claus"
(Sinterklaas in the Dutch whence "Santa Claus" comes). His image in
America has been mixed up with a lot of traits and imagery from sources
as disparate as the poetry of Clement Moore, pagan Norse mythology, and
American advertising. In real life, though, St. Nicholas was a beloved
and wonderful Bishop of Myra (in modern-day Turkey). He was born in
Asia Minor in A.D. 260 and orphaned at an early age.
As a young man, he made a pilgrimage to Palestine and Egypt, becoming a
Bishop upon his return. He was imprisoned during the persecutions of
Diocletian, but was released after Constantine came to rule. According
to legend, he was present at the Council of Nicaea and became so
incensed at Arius -- the heretical Bishop whose denial of the two
natures of Christ spread through the Church -- that he slapped him
across the face. He intervened twice in cases in which innocent men
were accused of crimes they did not commit, once appearing to
Constantine and the local prefect in a dream, encouraging them to do
the right thing in their regard.
Many stories about his life indicate his kindness and reveal miracles.
The Golden Legend, written in A.D. 1275 by Jacobus de Voragine,
Archbishop of Genoa, tells us how the Saint threw bags of gold coins to
a man in order to provide dowries for the man's daughters and save them
from lives of lechery:
And it was so
that one, his neighbour, had then three daughters, virgins, and he was
a nobleman: but for the poverty of them together, they were
constrained, and in very purpose to abandon them to the sin of lechery,
so that by the gain and winning of their infamy they might be
sustained. And when the holy man Nicholas knew hereof he had great
horror of this villainy, and threw by night secretly into the house of
the man a mass of gold wrapped in a cloth. And when the man arose in
the morning, he found this mass of gold, and rendered to God therefor
great thankings, and therewith he married his oldest daughter.
And a little while after this holy servant of God another mass of
gold, which the man found, and thanked God, and purposed to wake, for
to know him that so had aided him in his poverty. And after a few days
Nicholas doubled the mass of gold, and cast it into the house of this
man. He awoke by the sound of the gold, and followed Nicholas, which
fled from him, and he said to him: Sir, flee not away so but that I may
see and know thee.
Then he ran after him more hastily, and knew that it was Nicholas; and
anon he kneeled down, and would have kissed his feet, but the holy man
would not, but required him not to tell nor discover this thing as long
as he lived.
The gold that
St. Nicholas gave he put in the girls' stockings, giving birth to the
Christmas tradition of hanging stockings from the hearth.
from the Golden Legend explains how St. Nicholas saved sailors from a
It is read in a
chronicle that, the blessed Nicholas was at the Council of Nice; and on
a day, as a ship with mariners were in perishing on the sea, they
prayed and required devoutly Nicholas, servant of God, saying: If those
things that we have heard of thee said be true, prove them now.
And anon a man appeared in his likeness, and said: Lo! see ye me not?
ye called me, and then he began to help them in their exploit of the
sea, and anon the tempest ceased.
And when they were come to his church, they knew him without any man to
show him to them, and yet they had never seen him. And then they
thanked God and him of their deliverance. And he bade them to attribute
it to the mercy of God, and to their belief, and nothing to his merits.
The Golden Legend also gives us the story of a Jewish man who
was robbed, and how St. Nicholas used the event to imitate Christ,
not only bringing the Jewish man to Christ, but causing the thieves to
Another Jew saw
the virtuous miracles of St. Nicholas, and did do make an image of the
saint, and set it in his house, and commanded him that he should keep
well his house when he went out, and that he should keep well all his
goods, saying to him: Nicholas, lo! here be all my goods, I charge thee
to keep them, and if thou keep them not well, I shall avenge me on thee
in beating and tormenting thee.
And on a time, when the Jew was out, thieves came and robbed all his
goods, and left, unborne away, only the image. And when the Jew came
home he found him robbed of all his goods. He areasoned the image
saying these words: Sir Nicholas, I had set you in my house for to keep
my goods from thieves, wherefore have ye not kept them? Ye shall
receive sorrow and torments, and shall have pain for the thieves. I
shall avenge my loss, and subdue my madness in beating thee.
And then took the Jew the image, and beat it, and tormented it cruelly.
Then happed a great marvel, for when the thieves departed the goods,
the holy saint, like as he had been in his array, appeared to the
thieves, and said to them: Wherefore have I been beaten so cruelly for
you and have so many torments? See how my body is hewed and broken; see
how that the red blood runneth down by my body; go ye fast and restore
it again, or else the ire of God Almighty shall make you as to be one
out of his wit, and that all men shall know your felony, and that each
of you shall be hanged.
And they said: Who art thou that sayest to us such things? And he said
to them: I am Nicholas the servant of Jesu Christ, whom the Jew hath so
cruelly beaten for his goods that ye bare away.
Then they were afeard, and came to the Jew, and heard what he had done
to the image, and they told him the miracle, and delivered to him again
all his goods. And thus came the thieves to the way of truth, and the
Jew to the way of Jesu Christ.
story, this one not contained in the Golden Legend, tells how three
children were killed by an innkeeper and put into a tub of brine. St.
Nicholas, by the power of God, brought them back to life.
The story is told, too, that St. Nicholas attended the Council of
convened by the Emperor Constantine in A.D. 325 to deal with the
problem of Arianism. Arius spewed his heresy, and St. Nicholas, it is
said, walked up to him and slapped him across the face. Nicholas was
stripped of his bishopric and belongings, and imprisoned. While locked
up, Our Lord and Lady visited him, asking why he was jailed. He
answered, "Because of my love for you." They handed him a Book of the
Gospels and a Bishop's stole. When he was seen the next morning, chains
on the floor, holding the Gospel and stole, he was freed and restored
When the great Saint died, he was buried in Myra, but the town was
later taken by the Saracens in A.D. 1034. The Italians rallied to
gather and preserve his relics from desecration, and in 1097, sailors
brought them to Bari, Italy. A lovely church -- the Church of San
Niccolo -- was built to house them, and tere they can be found today. A
curative Oil of Saints -- "Manna di San
Niccolo" -- is said to exude from them to this day.
St. Nicholas is the patron of children, sailors, and bakers, and is
represented in art as a bearded, older man -- usually mitred -- holding
3 gold coins or a bag of coins, or three orbs. He is also often shown
with children, and/or a ship.
The Feast of St.
Nicholas is, for
many Catholics, the day for gift-giving (some do this on Christmas, some do this on the Feast of the Epiphany in memory of
the gifts the 3 Kings gave to Baby Jesus, and some spread the
gift-giving out on all these days). In some places, especially in the
Eastern Catholic churches, "St. Nicholas," dressed as a Bishop, will
show up and hand out presents to the little ones, and children put
their shoes in front of the fireplace to be filled with candy and
presents by morning. Because coins are one of the many symbols of St.
Nicholas, chocolate coins are a perfect thing to put in the childrens'
shoes. One can use Christmas stockings instead of shoes, or one can buy
adult-sized wooden shoes, paint and decorate them, and bring them out
for use just on St. Nicholas's Day.
In any case, an icon -- even a nice Holy Card
-- of St. Nicholas should be visible today if at all possible. Surround
it with greenery and candles, and tell your children the story of the
Saint Nicholas behind the "Santa Claus."
On St. Nicholas's Feast Day, it is customary to serve Speculaas
cookies, a spicy Dutch cookie, cut into shapes relevant to the life of
St. Nicholas (coins, mitres, ships, balls, money bags), and painted
with colorful icing:
Cookies (makes 3 dozen depending on size)
1 Cup (2 sticks) sweet butter, at room temperature
2 cups dark brown sugar
Grated rind of 1 lemon
2 teaspoons cinnamon
1 teaspoon ground nutmeg or mace
1/2 teaspoon ground cloves
1/8 teaspoon ground ginger
1/8 teaspoon cardamom
1/8 teaspoon salt
4 cups flour
1 teaspoon baking powder
A little beaten egg white for consistency, if desired
In a large bowl, cream the butter with the sugar until fluffy. Stir in
the eggs one at a time, blending thoroughly after each addition. Stir
in the lemon rind. Sift the spices and salt with the flour and baking
powder, and stir gradually into the butter mixture. Wrap in waxed paper
or plastic wrap and chill for several hours or overnight. On a floured
surface, roll out the dough to about 1/8 inch, or for larger figures to
about 1/4 inch. Cut into shapes (Bishop, Bishop's staff, Bishop's
mitre, ship, coins, etc.) and bake at 350 degrees until lightly browned
(don't overbake). When cool, mix together icing ingredients and paint
cookies as desired.
The eve of the
Feast of St. Nicholas -- that is, the night of December 5 -- is, in
areas of Germany (Bavaria), Austria, Germanic areas of northern Italy,
Hungary, and Croatia, a night when a half demon, half goat creature
named Krampus appears alongside St. Nicholas, a creature that gives the
night its German name: Krampusnacht.
This demonic being with its cloven hooves, horns, and black fur is
bound in chains, representing the Church's power over Satan.
Traditionally, figures of Krampus and St. Nicholas parade in the
aforementioned areas on Krampusnacht, with Krampus bearing sticks with
which to swat at naughty children, and St. Nicholas bearing gifts, such
as candies, to reward well-behaved children. The "St. Nicholas and
companion" rewarding/punishing duo is seen all over Europe, with the
punishing figure changing from place to place -- e.g., in the
Netherlands and Belgium, he is known as Swarte Piet (Black Pete); in
Northern Germany, he's known as Knecht Ruprecht, etc. In the United
States, it's Saint Nicholas himself who is said to give bad children
coal in their stockings to punish bad behavior. This punishing figure
is used to keep children in line throughout the year ("You better be
good! You don't want Krampus to punish you, do you?")
Sadly, the traditions of Krampusnacht have become overwhelmingly
paganized and secularized, much the way the customs of Hallowe'en have. St.
Nicholas is downplayed, and the Krampus figure has become less
humorous, more demonically chilling, and the sole focus of
Krampusnacht. What used to be wholesome and fun demonstrations of Good
being rewarded while evil is punished have now become hedonistic
celebrations of evil in many places.