Rather than a white-bearded fat man in a red suit, the real St Nicholas was a fourth-century bishop from modern-day Turkey. How did he become such a cultural icon across the West?
Who exactly was St Nicholas?
Born three centuries after Christ, St Nicholas was a bishop who lived in the town of Myra in Asia Minor (modern-day Turkey). He was born into wealth but lost both parents at an early age; he lived off his inheritance.
St Nicholas's feast day is celebrated on December 6, the anniversary of his death. He was described as a firebrand and staunch defender of Christian doctrine; he spent years in prison for refusing to renounce his faith during religious persecution.
But there are two stories — neither of which can be verified — that suggest the main reason why this distant figure became, many centuries later, the jolly, bearded man in a red suit bearing gifts to children at Christmas.
What is the first one?
The first reinforces St Nicholas’s reputation as a protector of the poor. The legend goes that he saved three impoverished sisters from prostitution by providing their father with their dowries — gifts, often property, given by a bride’s family to her husband on marriage.
He gave him three bags of gold — one for each woman — which he threw through a window. The bags of gold landed in socks that were left near the chimney to dry. Sound familiar?
What about the second?
The second is a more morbid tale. The story goes that St Nicholas walked into an inn in Athens and, thanks to his holy senses, discovered that the innkeeper had robbed, murdered, and then pickled three young men in barrels. The saint prayed and resurrected the three men, bringing their bodies back to life.
Is it true that we have one of his bones?
It’s hard to say. A fragment of bone claimed to be from St Nicholas was radiocarbon tested at Oxford University in 2017. The test has found that the relic does date from the time of St Nicholas, who is believed to have died around AD 343, but it does not prove that the bone is from the saint.
When did St Nicholas become Father Christmas?
Gifts have been bestowed on children on St Nicholas’s Day since the Middle Ages. In the Netherlands the festival of Sinterklaas is still celebrated with as much joy as Christmas Day itself.
But it was only after the Reformation that St Nicholas became associated with Christmas. Martin Luther, the Reformation’s leading figure, firmly opposed the veneration of saints and suggested that the annual gift-giving day should be moved to Christmas Day in order to focus the interest of children on Christ. Thus the two festivals melded.
What about the jolly man in red?
It is often said that Father Christmas’s red and white robes were created for a Coca-Cola advertising campaign. But the truth is rather more complex.
Primarily an English creation, the modern-day depiction of Father Christmas dates back as far as the 16th century during the reign of Henry VIII, when “Sir Christmas” was pictured as a large man in green or scarlet robes lined with fur. The figure was then revived by the Victorians.
Coca-Cola ran a campaign for 30 years featuring a jolly fat Santa, which helped cement the modern depiction.
Is he the same all around the world?
Absolutely not. When the atheist Bolsheviks seized power in Russia in 1917, they decided to ban Christmas. Instead, they gave a new lease of life to the fairy-tale character Ded Moroz (or Grandfather Frost). He was dressed in blue to avoid any association with St Nicholas or Christmas.
Christmas figures in Austria and Japan, meanwhile, are rather dark. To this day, the demon-like Krampus roams the streets of Austria scaring children. In Japan, Santa Kurohsu is said to have eyes in the back of his head to allow him to keep an eye on naughty children.
- Of the 12 depictions of St Nicholas above, which do you most associate with Christmas?
- Pick a country with very different Christmas traditions from your own and give a five-minute presentation about them to your class.
- Radiocarbon tested
- Carbon dating is a very complex, but also very accurate process. It works by comparing the three different isotopes of carbon. Recent advances in carbon dating methods have reshaped the consensus on many historical topics.
- 36% of the Dutch only give presents on Sinterklaas day, whereas Christmas is used by another 21% to give presents. Some 26% of the Dutch population gives presents on both days.
- A schism in the Catholic Church that led to the creation of Protestant Christianity. In 1517, Martin Luther wrote his Ninety-five Theses, the document that initiated one of the humanity’s most consequential developments.
- Coca-Cola ran a campaign for 30 years
- Coca-Cola’s use of the character began in the early 1930s when Swedish artist Haddon Sundblom started drawing ads for the company featuring a fat Santa.