St. Nicholas was a super-saint with an immense cult for most of the Christian past. There may be more icons surviving for Nicholas alone than for all the other saints of Christendom put together. So what happened to him? Where’s the fourth-century Anatolian bishop who presided over gift-giving to poor children? And how did we get the new icon of mass consumerism in his place?
Well, it’s a New York story.
In all innocence, the morphing began with the Dutch Christians of New Amsterdam, who remembered St. Nicholas from the old country and called him Sinte Klaas. They had kept alive an old memory — that a kindly old cleric brought little gifts to the poor in the weeks leading up to the Feast of the Nativity. While the gifts were important, they were never meant to overshadow the message of Jesus’s humble birth.
But today’s chubby Santa is not about giving to the poor. He has had his saintly garb stripped away. The filling out of the figure, the loss of the vestments, and his transformation into a beery fellow smoking a pipe combined to form a caricature of Dutch peasant culture. Eventually this Magic Santa (a suitable patron saint if there ever was one for the burgeoning capitalist machinery of the city) was of course popularized by the Manhattanite Clement Clarke Moore published in “A Visit From St. Nicholas,” in The Troy (New York) Sentinel on Dec. 23, 1823.
The newly created deity Santa soon attracted a school of iconographers: notable among them were Thomas Nast, whose 1863 image of a red-suited giant in Harper’s Weekly set the tone, and Haddon Sundblom, who drew up the archetypal image we know today on behalf of the Coca-Cola Company in the 1930s. This Santa was regularly accompanied by the flying reindeer: godlike in his majesty and presiding over the winter darkness like Odin the sky god returned.
The new Santa also acquired a host of Nordic elves to replace the small dark-skinned boy called Black Peter, who in Christian tradition so loved St. Nicholas that he traveled with him everywhere. But, some might say, wasn’t it better to lose this racially stereotyped relic? Actually, no, considering the real St. Nicholas first came into contact with Peter when he raided the slave market in his hometown and railed against the trade. The story tells us that when the slavers refused to take him seriously, he used the church’s funds to redeem Peter and gave the boy a job in the church.
And what of the throwing of the bags of gold down the chimney, where they landed in the stockings and little shoes that had been hung up to dry by the fireplace? Charming though it sounds, it reflected the deplorable custom, still prevalent in late Roman society when the Byzantine church was struggling to establish the supremacy of its values, of selling surplus daughters into bondage. This was a euphemism for sexual slavery — a trade that still blights our world.
As the tale goes, Nicholas had heard that a father in the town planned to sell his three daughters because his debts had been called in by pitiless creditors. As he did for Black Peter, Nicholas raided his church funds to secure the redemption of the girls. He dropped the gold down the chimney to save face for the impoverished father.
This tale was the origin of a whole subsequent series of efforts among the Christians who celebrated Nicholas to make some effort to redeem the lot of the poor — especially children, who always were, and still are, the world’s front-line victims. Such was the origin of Christmas almsgiving: gifts for the poor, not just gifts for our friends.
I like St. Nicholas. You can keep chubby Santa.
John Anthony McGuckin, a professor of religious history at Union Theological Seminary and Columbia.