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The Quest for the Historical Santa

The acute sufferings purportedly endured by Nicholas of Myra at the hands of his fourth-century Roman persecutors pale in comparison to the torture his legacy has endured ever since. Through the centuries countless men, women, and children have all but annihilated the actual historical figure, replacing him with a mythical imposter. The fabrications have been so severe that in most cases not a single trace of the authentic Nicholas of Myra can be found. The layers of mythology run so deeply that whatever fact may have once occupied the core has long suffocated, decomposed, and shriveled away. Instead of reliable historical facts about the life of Nicholas, we have songs recasting poems resting upon stories repackaging fables drawing upon myths relying on legends standing upon traditions relaying reports retelling rumors.
            There are extremely rare instances when an objective historian stumbles upon a believable fact. But if he grips the fact too tightly, it instantly vanishes in a puff of historical irrelevance and uncertainty. Read accounts of the life of Nicholas of Myra in any encyclopedia and you’ll see what I mean: He was (apparently) born here. He (allegedly) served as bishop there. He traveled (perhaps) to such-and-such a place. He (maybe) did this or that. He (conceivably) grew old and (likely) died. The conscientious historian finds herself scouring the thesaurus for alternatives to adverbs like “perhaps” and “reportedly” so as not to find herself adrift in the doldrums of writing. But she quickly discovers that the English language simply does not have the capacity to communicate the nuances of uncertainty with regard to the alleged life and times of St. Nicholas of Myra.
            As a historian of ancient church history, I was once convinced that any real history of the so-called uncontroversial facts regarding St. Nicholas would be roughly four sentences long. Dangling from these sentences like a Christmas tree decked by kindergarteners, one would find dozens of footnotes attempting to defend the claim that these four sentences really were, in fact, facts. If the biography were to include those things that seem to rest on at least a framework of historical facts supporting a mythical veneer, then the work might exceed four pages with numerous footnotes, excurses, and appendixes written for the sole purpose of sparing the historian’s career. For years I believed that nearly nothing certain could be known about the historical Santa. But more recently I’ve had a change of heart. Now I believe that many things about St. Nicholas can be nearly known, and many more things can be known to be certainly unknown. Trust me when I say that for historical Santa studies, this is real progress.
            This essay is the result of years of study on the life, legacy, and legends of Nicholas of Myra. It will help each of us answer the primeval question that has haunted most Christian boys and girls from an early age: “Is there a real Santa Claus?” However, it will do nothing to productively explore the numerous related questions and issues: How was St. Nicholas transformed from a malnourished monk in a frock to a fat man in a red suit? Who was responsible for layer upon layer of fiction? Why so many versions of the same already unbelievable fables? As strange as it may sound, Nicholas of Myra may be the most well-known Christian saint we know almost nothing about. And it may have to stay this way.  
My own personal journey into historical Santa studies began as a small child growing up in frigid northern Minnesota—as close to the North Pole climate and culture one can get while still living in the continental United States.
Let me set the stage for you. My younger brother and I would frequent the home of old “Grandma” Odie just down the alley. She’d always give us cookies or candy . . . and, due to her senility, she would ask us the same questions over and over again. One year around Christmas, she asked what we wanted from Santa. I sharply answered, “We don’t believe in Santa Claus.”
You see, my hard-working, down-to-earth parents never deceived us with the Santa myth. They reasoned that if they were going to work their blue collars ragged to place presents underneath the Christmas tree each year, they would at least let their kids know who to thank. So in the Svigel home, the chimney was “exit only.”
            Grandma Odie frowned at our faithless response. “You don’t believe in Santa Claus?”
            “No. It’s just our mommy and daddy.”
            “Well, I believe in Santa Claus,” she answered.
            I wasn’t sure what to do with this rejoinder. “You do?” I asked.
            “Of course! I believe Santa Claus is a spirit, and he gives you the Christmas spirit in your heart.”
            At that point I just shut my mouth and took another bite of my cookie. For Grandma Odie, “Santa” was a meaningful symbol of the Christmas spirit. And as long as it didn’t involve a rotund man climbing down my chimney in the middle of the night, I was willing to give her a pass.
            From that point on through my childhood and adolescence, I accepted the “idea” of Santa Claus as a quaint personification of a festive spirit, a joyful demeanor, or even charitable virtue. But I had little interest in considering whether there ever was a real Santa Claus. Grandma Odie’s spiritualized interpretation was good enough for me. Having conveniently dismissed the Claus of history, I replaced him with the Santa of faith.
            However, over the last several years my study of early church history constantly led me across the path of the mysterious St. Nicholas of Myra—a.k.a. Saint Nick, Nikolaus, Nikolai, or Santa Claus. As a result, I became more and more interested in the historical man behind the mythical symbol.
            Sadly, though, my first quest for the historical Santa was a short one. The fact is, historians really don’t know a whole lot about Nicholas of Myra. The biographies we have were written centuries after his death and are filled with all sorts of far-fetched legendary accounts. Here’s what we think we know: Nicholas of Myra was born in southern Asia Minor (modern Turkey) in the late third century (around A.D. 270). By the early fourth century, he was serving as the bishop of Myra. He died around 346 on December 6, which is his feast day.
            That’s the extent of our relative certainty. But that doesn’t stop us from going beyond the bare and boring facts of history to the more interesting traditions and legends surrounding this bigger-than-life figure . . . to observe how St. Nicholas or Myra is progressively transformed into Santa Claus of the North Pole. Let’s  move from the facts of history, through the trustworthy traditions, and finally to the fabulous legends of popular mythology.
So, going a bit beyond the facts of history to relatively reliable tradition, we see that St. Nicholas was thought to have been a very generous person who gave liberally to the poor and defended the oppressed. And he did so anonymously so that the thanks, praise, and glory would be directed to God alone. Many details of his charity are sketchy and legendary, but it seems likely that he cared for children as well as showed hospitality to sailors and foreigners—those who were constantly passing through the port city of Myra. (Yes, he was from the coastal Mediterranean. No, he was not from the North Pole. And he probably never saw snow!)
            We also discover that Nicholas likely suffered imprisonment and mistreatment during the great Roman persecution under Emperor Diocletian, who reigned from 284–305. And we have no reason to doubt that Nicholas attended the first ecumenical council of Nicaea in 325, where Arius was rejected for denying the deity of Christ. Nicholas’s name even appears on some lists of those bishops in attendance, and I don’t see any reason why he would not have attended the council, for his southern coastal city of Myra was about 400 miles from Nicaea in the north, and he would have only been about 55 at the time. (Besides, didn’t he have a fleet of flying reindeer?) We do have an account that at the state dinner for the bishops attending Nicaea, the Emperor Constantine apparently pointed out the three bishops he believed deserved special honor, saying, “There are three pillars of the world, Anthony in Egypt, Nicholas of Myra, and James in Assyria.”
            From this point in the biography of Nicholas we embark into the purely legendary, which may or may not have any relationship to actual history. Tales are told about his many miracles—from calming the seas to bringing children back to life. He is often called “Nicholas the Wonderworker” because of the accounts of miracles appearing in medieval biographies and artwork. But outside the miraculous, the most interesting legend for me is the story of Nicholas striking Arius in the face at the Council of Nicaea. (Not quite the jolly old Saint Nick we imagine!) But, alas, the historical evidence for Santa Claus punching heretics in the nose isn’t strong enough for us to start a Christmas tradition of getting into fist fights with known heretics.
            Yes, St. Nicholas is more than simply a symbol of the holiday spirit . . . not much more, but more nevertheless. So after reading this essay, if your children or grandchildren ask you if Santa Claus was a real person, you may confidently answer, “Yes.” But beyond that, there’s really not much more we can say for sure.

 

[Originally posted at www.retrochristianity.com on December 6, 2011]

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