The Man who became Santa Claus

St.Nicholas of Myra was the original gift-bearer

Credit to akg-images / André Held

Father Christmas: From infernal roots to present glory

A jolly old man from the North Pole and a horned demon aren’t usually the same person.

But in Austria and Germany, Santa only became a fixture in the mid-twentieth century. For centuries, it was an array of ‘wild men’ that stole the show. Once December approached, young men would dress up, prance around their villages, scare children and demand money from their superiors.The family feast with tree and presents came later-the original celebrations were a madcap concoction of Christmas, Halloween and New Year thrown together.

What made the German speaking territories so unique was their affinity for the beast, for shaggy monsters with chains, hooves and fiery eyes-Krampus is the most famous of the lot. (For those interested, I’ve written a piece on his origin story.)

A rather tame version of these ‘man-beasts’ is Father Christmas (Weihnachtsmann). He became known as a benevolent gift-giver, with only a slight resemblance to the more fanciful Christmas demons of the time. As his popularity grew, tastes changed. Christmas became an indoor feast while spirits and demons lost their traction.

The most popular of these gift-givers was Saint Nicholas, who went from house to house with miter, pastoral staff and a bag full of gifts for children. Up to this day, chocolate manufacturers mass produce a figure with all the trimmings in question while house and school visits on the 6th of December featuring a masked Nicholas abound.

Yet who is the man behind the legend?

Nicholas of Lycia

The ancestor of Santa Claus was born in the Mediterranean area during Roman rule in 380 AD. The saint became the bishop of Myra, a small town in what is now modern Turkey. He may have attended the famous Council of Nicaea convened in 325 AD to resolve pressing church issues. Nicholas’s fame was based on many purported miracles enacted in his lifetime and due to the fact that he grew to be associated as the protector of various groups, ranging from children and orphans to sailors and prisoners. Every year, December 6 is celebrated as St. Nicholas’s Day.

These are the corner stones of his life that scholars have verified. Yet they are not the reason why his popularity remains undiminished up to this day.

What makes such a seemingly obscure historical person so alluring is his story.

It is a tale that crosses oceans and deserts as well as the Arctic itself. It is a story of emperors, knights, villains, shipwrecks, kidnappings, treasure and dark dungeons. But most of all, it is a story about that most quintessential struggle-the one which pits good against evil.

And Nicholas was a man accustomed to the latter.

Born as the son of a wealthy family and into the home of old but doting parents, his beginning was comfortable. Yet he must have seen parts of that life crumbling when his parents died during an outbreak of the plague, leaving him an orphan. Nicholas moved to the monastery where his uncle lived, and, over time, decided to join said establishment himself.

Despair giving way to Faith.

A Gift-Giver is Born

In the time that Nicholas wrestled with his future, a family with three daughters lived in Patara. Their father, a wealthy man, was on the brink of loosing his fortune. As a last resort he was considering selling off his children as slaves, hoping that in this way they would at least be guaranteed their daily bread. When Nicholas heard about the plight of said family, he was roused to action. Remembering a bible verse in the Gospel of Matthew that instructs a believer to do good without fanfare, he hatched a plan.

The young man crept into the family house at night and opened a window. Sliding a bag through the crack, he hurried away before anyone could see him. The next morning, the family found it and opened it. Suddenly,several gold coins spilled onto the floor. Overcome with gratitude and relief, the family thanked God. With said money, the father was able to fashion a dowry for one daughter whilst they all managed to live comfortably for a while.

The young Nicholas, pleased with the outcome of his night adventure, resolved to do the same again. Once more, he left a bag with gold coins in the family home and once again, another daughter was able to marry successfully.

The father in question who hoped there would be a gift for his last daughter resolved to lie in wait this time should that occur. When, at last, a bag of gold flew in through the window, he rushed out into the dark and caught the running figure by its cloak. Recognising Nicholas, he fell to his knees and thanked his benefactor. But the saint to be had him stand up, told him to thank God instead and not tell a soul who had helped him.

When you give to the poor, do not let your left hand know what your right hand is doing, so that your giving will be in secret

-Mt 6,3–4

A Legend in Action

Nicholas became a man of God true to the spirit of Christianity.

Taking every opportunity to do good in the town of Patara, he helped the poor, settled disputes between neighbours and became a father to the lost as well as the lonely. His reputation of benevolence and kindness inspired the community he served to emulate him whilst his devotion ultimately led to his appointment as Bishop of Myra, an important city several miles east of Patara on the Lycian coast.

Yet the shadow of Rome fell heavily upon him.

In a time when the Empire was crumbling due to political instability, marauding barbarians as well as the plague, Christians were decried as Enemy Number One. Their refusal to accept the state religion and offer sacrifices to the Emperor led to wide-spread persecution. Staunch believers who refused to recant were imprisoned, thrown into cages with leopards and bears or roasted alive. It was a trying time to believe in Christ.

The young bishop was accordingly taken to prison by Roman soldiers who starved and tortured him continuously yet Nicholas endured. More than that, he began to minister to fellow prisoners, soothing their worries and tending to the wounded. He was finally released after Constantine, who won a great victory under the banner of Christ-he had the Chi-Rho cross emblazoned on his soldiers shields-released the Edict of Milan that granted religious freedom to all people.

The new emperor promoted Christianity throughout the Empire yet for Nicholas, trouble was still awaiting.

Back in Myra, his former flock had grown embittered due to the long persecution, many having lost family and means of survival while others had renounced Christianity completely. Strengthened by his years in prison, Nicholas helped to staunch the wounds of his flock and, once more, people rallied around him in hope.

Around this time, one of the most famous stories revolving around the saint occurred.

A famine broke out in Myra whilst disease spread through the city.

One day, Nicholas heard of a ship bound to Constantinople that was to anchor in Myra. He asked the captains of said ship to sell grain to him but they refused, stating that their cargo would be measured upon arrival and any deficiency would be blamed on them. The saint asked the men to step off their ships and walk with him. Stunned and grieved by the level of misery they encountered, the captains were yet reluctant to sell some of their grain. Nicholas told them to trust in God and to follow their own hearts in order to make the right decision. Buoyed by these words, they left after having sold some grain to the Bishop. The people of Myra were saved.

Later, legend has it, the captains were surprised upon unloading their ships in Constantinople to find their store of grain to be untouched.

Credit to Lorenzetti, Ambrogio: Saving Myra from Famine

In the stories, the Bishop of Myra is portrayed as a man of action as well as of deep faith, someone with no fear of doing the right thing.

From saving three innocent men condemned to death by a corrupt official by literally stepping in during their execution to purportedly slapping Arius, a priest from Alexandria now famous for propagating the Arian heresy (a belief that Jesus was not as divine as God) during the Council of Nicaea, he is depicted in the chronicles and histories as a righteous man emulating the Saviour he so loved.

It is said that in his old age, children came to be the source of his greatest joy.

He would sit in the marketplace, surrounded by them and talk as well as listen to his innocent friends. Nicholas finally died in 340 AD-purportedly on December 6- and was interred in the cathedral of Myra.His renown endured, however.

The Wonderworker strikes again

The impossible was possible with and through St. Nicholas and that inspired people in the telling of his legends.

Sailors on ships across the Mediterranean Sea were the carriers of these often fantastic tales. One relates how Nicholas suddenly appears on a storm-tossed ship to battle with the storm itself while the other has a captain of a grain fleet head to Constantinople meet a mysterious merchant who later, as he docks into Myra, turns out to be Nicholas himself. Each of these myths has a kernel of truth to them, the second of which is related extensively above.

As stories began to spread about a wondrous oil seeping out of the bishop’s remains, the deal was sealed. Pilgrims started to flock to Asia Minor till soldiers stole the venerated bones and erected a shrine to them in Bari-much more accessible to Western Christendom.

In the long years to come, St. Nicholas would become the patron saint of orphans, travelers, spinsters, mariners and many more as his stories continued to spread and multiply.

At some point in the Middle Ages, he became the icon of generosity that connects the figure to the jolly old man with his sack of presents and his reindeer driven sleigh we know today.

Gradually, children started leaving their shoes out, hoping to see them filled with fruit, nuts, candy or maybe even a coin or two. Schoolmasters, who saw in Nicholas a patron of scholars, began to give gifts to their pupils on December 6. In France, nuns left presents for the poor on their doorsteps and parents, inspired by miracle plays featuring the Saint’s gift-giving, began to emulate his practices.


Yet as Lutheranism rose up with its distaste for saintly holidays (often ending in drunk debauchery at the time!) and scientific discoveries grew widespread, St. Nicholas became less popular. Across Europe, he began to loose his role as traditional gift giver until his memory was resurrected in the United States, where immigrants had brought centuries-old memories of the saint across the ocean.

Nicholas is Coming to Town

It was John Pintard, a succesful 19th century businessman who re-instituted Saint Nicholas. Convinced that he would be a perfect patron for his New York Historical Society, the savvy historical buff made a toast to St.Nick’s memory in the course of a special banquet.

A banquet that also featured a new member called Washington Irving.

Irving along with Dickens would be the one to transform Christmas into the family-oriented festival we know today.

The author, best known today for his The Legend of Sleepy Hollow,wrote a mock history of his native New York in which he has his narrator, the Dutch settler Diedrich Knickerbocker, relate how the Dutch first came to the colonies on a ship with an image of St. Nicholas engraved on its bow. In the narrative, Nicholas later appears to them in a dream to show them where they should build a city- like a jolly version of Aeneas.

Meanwhile Clement Clarke Moore, an eminent theological scholar of the time, would pen his story poem A Visit from Saint Nicholas which featured a version of the saint not dressed in bishop’s robes but fur. The poem that was renamed to Twas the night before Christmas, a literary staple of the season, gave its hero a new identity.

As the German ‘Sankt Nikolaus’ as well as the Dutch ‘Sinterklaas’ proved difficult for Americans to pronounce, the name gradually devolved into Santa Claus. Moore’s poem also shifted the gift-giving occasion from December 6 to December 24, transforming the character into something else.

The Night Before Christmas, Clement Clarke Moore (ca.1900)

In 1863, a cartoonist for Harper’s Weekly produced various images of Santa coming down the chimney and filling stockings, the figure gradually turning into the jolly old man with his elves and reindeer that we are so accustomed to seeing these days. Said cartoonist relocated Santa to his new home at the North Pole as interest in the region began to explode. These were the final touches to the all enduring legend.

When Coca-Cola finally put its own spin on the story in 1931, Santa could be said to have came into his own.

Yet the spirit of kindness and generosity as well as the hope amidst adversity that is Christmas tradition is Saint Nicholas through and through-a legacy not only worth protecting but also remembering by taking time to contemplate its origins.

Said origins, exemplified in the person and deeds of a bishop who lived so long ago.


Bennett, William J. (2018) The True Saint Nicholas: Why He Matters to Christmas. New York: Howard Books

Photojournalist and narrative non-fiction writer

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