Lately, there has been a resurgence back to European Christmas traditions. A few years ago, Dwight Schrute of The Office introduced America to the old German character, Belsnickel. There is also a new movie out this year about the Bavarian Christmas creature, Krampus. I like this resurgence. Too often, the American idea of internationalization is actually Americanization. Instead of expecting the world to appreciate and celebrate our Santa Clause, this resurgence calls Americans to seek out other traditions of the season from around the world.
The North American Santa Clause has his roots with old European figures, but began to evolve independently in the 1820s when the poem, A Visit from St. Nicholas, was written. You are probably familiar with the first few lines from it:
‘Twas the night before Christmas, when all thro’ the house,
Not a creature was stirring, not even a mouse;
The stockings were hung by the chimney with care,
In hopes that St. Nicholas soon would be there;
In the spirit of the resurgence to non-American Christmas figures, I’d like to take a look at some of the stories about the original St. Nicholas.
St. Nicholas was born to a rich Greek family in Patara in 270 A.D. Patara was a coastal town in modern-day Turkey, but it was under Roman rule at the time. His parents died when he was young, so he was raised by his uncle, who shaved a bald spot on his head and eventually ordained him as a presbyter. The Roman Emperor, Diocletian, sent St. Nick (and lots of others) to prison for his beliefs. Diocletian was eventually replaced by Constantius Chlorus and Galerius and (to make a long story short) Christianity became more tolerable. St. Nicholas was involved in the Council of Nicea in 325, which is kinda a big deal. There are all sorts of stories about him. It is said that he gave all of his money to the poor and was especially passionate about helping children and sailors.
One of the more famous stories is that a man had some daughters but was too poor to give them a dowry. Because the girls didn’t have dowries, they were unable to get married and so they were destined to be sold into slavery. So, St. Nicholas threw some bags of money through their window, which landed in some footwear that was sitting by the fireplace to dry out. There isn’t any evidence that he gave anyone a lump of coal, though.
Everyone’s favorite legend of St. Nicholas is his episode at Nicea. The main purpose of the Council of Nicea was to address the Arian heresy, which denied the deity of Christ. The main proponent of this ancient heresy was Arius, who was a priest from Alexandria.1 It is said (and this could be total rubbish) that the council got so heated that Nicholas up and smacked Arius upside the head. Denying the Trinity is a serious doctrinal error, but let’s not get violent over theology, folks. Now, Eusebius is a Trinitarian like Nicholas is, but he knew that St. Nick had gone too far. So, Eusebius did what any mature Christian of passionate orthodox, yet well-mannered composure would do: he urinated on Nicholas’s robe.
St. Nicholas’s remains have been preserved rather well throughout the ages, so a while back, BBC decided to use facial reconstruction technology to figure out what he looked like. The result is in: