Tuesday, August 22nd 2017

What’s less fun than telling your kids at the mall that Santa Claus doesn’t exist?

Answer: the real Santa was a Byzantine monk. Yup, Old Saint Nick evolved from a bishop in present-day Turkey who treated opponents harshly but championed the cause of the powerless

stnicholas300pBY KOHL GLAU — Santa Claus’ real story begins nearly 1,700 years ago as the powerful Roman empire was quickly becoming Christian. He lived in a moderate Mediterranean climate, opposed Church-branded heretics, financially supported the poor, built churches, and performed miracles.

In other words, the historical St. Nick is a far more spiritual figure than the folkoric Santa Claus who lives near the North Pole, receives letters from children, rides in a reindeer-drawn sleigh, and deliversgifts on Christmas Eve. How did this commercial Santa evolve? Who was the original? Is he even someone on whose knee you’d want to seat your child?

Coca Cola Santa

Did Coke Cola slake Saint Nicholas' thirst for holiness?

Did Coke Cola slake Saint Nicholas' thirst for holiness?

A jolly, laughing sky-god who rides on the wings of the wind, bringing just desserts to children near and far. Yes, it’s Santa Claus, as he is iconically-portrayed in the famous Coca Cola advertisements of the 1950′s. This Santa possesses magical powers, lives in a climate inhospitable to mere mortals, employs a legion of elves, and carefully monitors the lives of his adherents.

This gift-bearing Santa Claus has a large, yet select, following: children. Though children do not offer prayers of adoration to Santa, as adults do to Jesus, wishful petitions are the norm. Asking, begging, imploring Santa to materially bestow his good graces on them, children mail letters to the North Pole or wait in line to speak to one of Santa’s many avatars in shopping malls. Some parents even serve as intermediaries between their kids and Santa, making intercession on childrens’ behalf.

On the surface, the consumer Santa Claus appears as an elvish god of the eve, bringing good cheer to all.  Though an unselfish giver of gifts, this Santa is often portrayed brandishing products ready for consumption.

Saint Nicholas is "gonna find out who's naughty or nice."

Saint Nicholas is "gonna find out who's naughty or nice."

Santa ad orientum

As it turns out, the original Santa Claus was a Middle Eastern bishop in what is now Turkey. Born around 270, Nicholas was elected bishop of the city of Myra, in the Byzantine province of Lycia. Nicholas was compassionate and pugnacious. For example, during the Council of Nicea in 325, where over 300 bishops meet to resolve debate concerning the nature of Jesus, Nicholas met with one of the key figures of the controversy, Arius.

Arius argued that Jesus as the Son of God, but not the eternal God, was created by God the Father. Saint Nicholas, at one point during the council, lost his temper and punched Arius in the face. As a result, Nicholas was thrown in prison by the emperor Constantine. A slap in the face from Saint Nick! Coal for Christmas doesn’t seem all that bad by comparison.

Nicholas’ fight against paganism


As bishop of Myra, Nicholas took on the task of removing the evidence and images of Greek paganism in the city. According to history, Nicholas took issue with the number of pagan temples in the city. What the city’s architecture needed, Nicholas concluded, was a face lift. With imperial backing, Nicholas closed and demolished several temples, the largest one dedicated to the goddess Artemis, the Greek goddess of hunting. Stone by stone her temple was demolished, and her priestess was forbidden from offering any prophecies, in order to free the adherents, as the story goes, from all manner of demons.


Patron saint of youths

Another story recounts how Nicholas, while bishop of Myra, got word that three innocent young men were to be executed. Nicholas rushed to the site of the execution, where he found three men bound and ready for the sword. As the executioner began the first blow, Nicholas stopped the blade with his hands.  He successfully removed the sentence, and allowed the three men to escape death. Due to this act, historical or not, Saint Nicholas became a patron saint of young men and women.


Patron saint of children

According to another story, three children became lost on their way home during the night, but happened upon a butcher’s shop. The butcher, answering the knock at his door, found the three tired and hungry. He welcomed them into his shop, offering food and rest. However, once the children felt safe, the butcher grabbed them and murdered them with a knife. The wicked butcher cut up the bodies, placed them in a tub for salting meat, planning to sell their flesh for food. After the deed, but before the sale, it is said that Saint Nicholas entered the butcher’s shop, placed his hand in the tub and commanded the children to rise. The children’s bodies reassembled and they were revived.  Such stories prompted a devotion to Saint Nicholas as a patron saint of children.


Something old and something new

Businesses and families adore the North American caricature of Saint Nicholas, a jolly, white-bearded man who listens to children’s wishes, sells products, and attends parades. The U.S. Santa doesn’t step on toes, loves eating cookies, and is pretty much harmless. On the other hand, Saint Nicholas from the East would probably not be offered a job at Macy’s as their holiday good will representative because he would have a criminal record for assault. Some would shower scorn upon him for the demolition of pagan temples. His reassembling of dismembered children would probably be judged grotesque.  And action movie fans would applaud his stopping a sword with his bare hands. Not exactly a man for all people.

How to welcome an Oriental Santastnickclose1

We twenty-first centurians may have difficulty relating to an ancient Santa Claus without the Coca Cola smile, but his life and strangeness can appeal to some of our nobler qualities, particularly those related to how we treat ourselves and others. We may wisely avoid punching our opponents and thus prison, but do we take risks for a good cause?

While we do not demolish other people’s places of worship, how often do we take the chance to tear down our spiritual obstacles, remove our inner demons and invite something better? Most of us cannot stop a swinging sword with our bare hands, but have we considered what we can do to prevent the deaths of innocent lives? Though we do not normally revive the dead through miraculous means, what small steps do we take to help those close to death or those without a voice?

The Middle Eastern Saint Nicholas and the consumer Santa Claus do have one thing in common: they can teach all people the spiritual riches of unselfish giving, even at great risk. Becoming a saint or being holy does not always mean sitting quietly at home praying and meditating. A spiritual life could entail facing the darker side of reality, whether it be prison, executioners, demons and murderers. Even these grim realities can be transformative spiritual experiences.

Kohl Glau is the new Associate Editor at Soul’s Code. His academic training is in theology, religion in late antiquity, and he speaks, reads and writes Hebrew, Aramaic, Syriac, Latin and German. He holds a B.A. in Religious Studies and certificates in Jewish and Medieval Studies from Arizona State University. He is completing his M.A. at the Graduate Theological Union in Berkeley.

If this spoke to you, here are five similar articles.

Related Posts

3 Comments on “What’s less fun than telling your kids at the mall that Santa Claus doesn’t exist?”

  1. This is an interesting piece. It caused me to think about the Santa I grew up with in a very real way. I realized that I did (in a way) treat Santa Claus as a kind of spiritual deity, after all he did know what I wanted for Christmas without me directly telling him. He also knew if I was good or not. It seems like a prime example of how a factual or historical person can be transformed into something similar, if not something completely distinct. A nice 2007 NY Times piece by John McGuckin of Columbia University goes along quite nicely with this one.

  2. Amazing article! I had no idea about the way that "Santa" has appeared throughout history. Thanks for the lesson...didn't seem like a lesson though...a lot more entertaining than school :)

  3. i wish we had some evidence Santa was real

Leave a Reply