You know Dasher and Dancer and Prancer and Vixen. But do you recall Saint Nicholas of Myra, the man behind Santa Claus? The jolly old elf of Christmastime lore is an embellishment on the historical persona of a Christian pastor from the 4th century. Our forbearers adapted his legacy to suit their cultural needs, altering his attributes as they went along. As a result, the man behind our favorite holiday fable is shrouded in myths and misconceptions. Here are five.
Myth No. 1
Saint Nicholas was a white European.
In the vast majority of depictions, Santa Claus, Saint Nicholas and Father Christmas are portrayed as white-skinned Europeans with rosy cheeks and white beards. Former Fox News anchor Megyn Kelly could have pointed to innumerable examples from film, art, toys and advertisements when, in a 2013 broadcast, she asserted that “Santa just is white.”
But Nicholas had a Mediterranean complexion and spoke Greek. He was born sometime after 260 in Patara, a port town on the coast of modern-day Turkey. The region had been colonized by the Greeks centuries earlier. The racial category of “white” wasn’t one the ancient world was acquainted with, and it would not have occurred to anyone at the time to describe themselves in that way.
Myth No. 2
Saint Nicholas was a jolly man in a red coat.
From 1931 to 1964, artist Haddon Sundblom painted enchantingly warm scenes of Santa’s home and hearth for the Coca-Cola Company. Norman Rockwell depicted Santa for the Saturday Evening Post looking cheerful and glad. And before that, Thomas Nast drew Santa for Harper’s Weekly with his traditional red coat, white beard, round belly and pipe. Nast can be credited with working out the major aspects of Santa’s look in his fanciful and imaginative drawings, which date to the second half of the 19th century.
But during the saint’s lifetime, Nicholas would have worn a simple tunic and cloak, like other Christian ministers of his era. No heavy furs needed on the Mediterranean coast. Nor would he have been decked out in embroidered robes of red or green, complete with miter, stole, gloves and rings, as is often the case in ornamental “Old World” statuettes of the saint. Christianity was an outlawed, persecuted, minority religion for about two-thirds of Nick’s life. He probably would not have had the financial resources to acquire such an outfit, and even if he had, it would not have been prudent for him to traipse about town wearing it.
Nor was the saint noted for his cheerful disposition. In what was arguably the most important incident from the life of Nicholas, first recorded in the mid-6th century, he intervened in a court proceeding and halted a beheading. At the last minute, he stopped the executioner from performing his duty and then confronted the judge who had given the sentence. Nicholas berated the judge, Eustathius, until he admitted that he’d accepted bribes. The episode was not about jovial generosity but rather a hard-nosed resolve to oppose injustice. So much for “ho ho ho.”
Myth No. 3
Saint Nicholas’s gift-giving inspired his legend.
A National Geographic article tracking Nicholas’s transformation from saint to Santa cites a “better-known tale” in which “three young girls are saved from a life of prostitution when young Bishop Nicholas secretly delivers three bags of gold to their indebted father, which can be used for their dowries.” In describing Nicholas’s festive metamorphosis from bishop to Kris Kringle, the History Channel’s website likewise claims that the account of the three dowries is “one of the best known of the St. Nicholas stories.”
While this is the legend that most directly connects Nicholas to his role in contemporary lore as a dispenser of gifts, his persona came alive thanks to an altogether uglier story. In the Middle Ages, the most popular tale about Nicholas involved a grisly murder mystery. Perhaps the earliest version dates to the mid-10th century and Lower Saxony.It goes like this: An evil innkeeperlured three children in, chopped them up and stuffed them into wooden pickling barrels. Nicholas arrived, uncovered the foul deed, and miraculously reassembled and restored the poor children to life.
The gruesome account became an instant hit. Traveling performers reenacted the drama in towns and villages across Europe. Thanks in part to this story, Nicholas became recognized as the protector and patron saint of children.
Myth No. 4
Saint Nicholas punched a heretic.
Nicholas’s historical reputation as a dour opponent of wrongdoing has sometimes been carried too far. At the Council of Nicaea in 325, the legend goes, Nicholas punched the arch-heretic Arius, who argued that Jesus in his capacity as the Son was not co-eternal with God. By the 1500s, church frescoes and icons were depicting Nicholas slapping Arius. Maybe you’ve seen the more modern memes online: A stern-looking Byzantine saint says: “Deck the halls? Try deck the heretic.” In another, he says: “I came to give presents to kids and to punch heretics. And I just ran out of presents.” Denizens of the Internet have become so delighted with the story that they’ve even written songs about it — “I Saw Santa Punching Arius,” for example.
It is true that the intact skull of Saint Nicholas, enclosed in a tomb in Bari, Italy, shows evidence that his nose had been severely broken. But there is nothing to suggest that it was a result of landing a haymaker on Arius. The incident appears for the first time in the late 1300s, more than 1,000 years after Nicholas’s death, in the writings of a Venetian named Petrus de Natalibus. In the earliest version, Nicholas slaps “an Arian.” It could not have been Arius himself, who was not in attendance at Nicaea, since he was not a bishop.
Myth No. 5
Saint Nicholas’s remains have not been uncovered.
This fall, sensational headlines appeared across the Web: “Body of St Nicholas buried in Demre, claim officials” and “Santa dead, archaeologists say.” Archaeologists working on the ancient Church of St. Nicholas in Demre, Turkey,recently detected an open space or chamber beneath the tiled floor. Although they have not opened it or inspected it, they are hopeful that the chamber contains the undisturbed bones of the saint. Based on their efforts, one may have concluded that, before this year, the final resting place of Saint Nicholas was unknown.
But it’s unlikely that the tomb under the church really holds the remains of Saint Nicholas, which have indeed been uncovered - many times. After his death, sometime between 333 and 343, Nicholas’s Demre tomb became an international destination for Christian pilgrims on the way to the Holy Land. Then, in 1087, 62 sailors from Bari, Italy, came ashore, smashed open the tomb and hastily removed the bones, taking them on board their ship and delivering them to Bari on May 9. Ten years later, Venetian sailors entered the church at Demre, scraped together all the remaining bone fragments they could find and took them to Venice.
Researchers at the Relics Cluster at Keble College, Oxford University, have dated a pelvic bone fragment attributed to Saint Nicholas to the 4th century, which aligns with the traditional life span of the saint. The bone, acquired from a collection in Lyon, France, now resides in Morton Grove, Illinois. More likely than not, Saint Nicholas rests across the globe - and of course, in our hearts.
English, chair of the department of Christian studies at Campbell University, is the author of “The Saint Who Would Be Santa Claus: The True Life and Trials of Nicholas of Myra.”