St. Nicholas of Myra, Part I:
For those of you to whom the title of this post sounds vaguely familiar, it’s a variation of “How Can You Be in Two Places at Once Where You’re Not Anywhere at All,” the title of a 1969 album by an improvisational comedy troupe, The Firesign Theatre.
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For those of you to whom the title of this post sounds vaguely familiar, it’s a variation of “How Can You Be in Two Places at Once Where You’re Not Anywhere at All,” the title of a 1969 album by an improvisational comedy troupe, The Firesign Theatre. It fits St. Nicholas of Myra about as well as any slogan because the Good Holy Man, or Goede Heilige Man as he was described in Holland, managed to become one of the most famous Christmas figures in history even though he really had nothing to do with Christmas and, many historians would argue, never actually existed at all. In this post, I will examine the history of St. Nicholas before he was drafted as a Christian gift-giver in the Middle Ages. In later segments, I will tell the story of how St. Nicholas became the most prominent gift-giver in Europe in the twelfth or thirteenth centuries, and how he immigrated to America in the early nineteenth century.
Most history books say St. Nicholas was born in or around 270 A.D., served as Bishop of Myra, a city in western Turkey that was part of the Greek Empire in the third century, and purportedly died on December 6, 343, although some historians who doubt Nicholas’ existence say December 6 was chosen as his feast day because that was the pre-Christian feast of Poseidon. As religious historian Adam C. English explains in St. Nicholas, The Saint Who Would Be Santa Claus, “there is no early documentation of the man—no writings, disciples, or major acts,” and there is a scholarly debate about whether St. Nicholas actually existed at all.1
“The historicity of St. Nicholas of Myra has been questioned by various persons in various degrees over the years. In recent times . . . two of the most important Nicholas scholars of the twentieth century: Gustav Anrich, the early-century German who compiled all the early Greek texts related to the saint, and Charles W. Jones, an esteemed Berkeley professor of antiquity. Anrich believes that, given the evidence, a definitive verdict on the historicity of St. Nicholas is not possible. Jones expresses skepticism about every major ‘fact’ of Nicholas’ life, including his name, his deeds, and his death date.”2
The only contemporaneous evidence of Nicholas’ existence is that his name appears on one of the “fragmentary and unreliable” lists identifying the 318 bishops who attended the Council of Nicea in 325.3 The Council of Nicea established agreement upon the concept of the Holy Trinity but there is no evidence St. Nicholas did or said anything during the proceedings. No contemporary witness documented Nicholas’ deeds, or even his presence, and not one of Nicholas’ fellow bishops, nor any contemporary chroniclers, mentions him by name in any of their letters or histories. Most significantly, Charles W. Jones asserts that the single reference to Nicholas’ attendance in the Nicea records–the only contemporaneous evidence of his existence–was added sometime after the thirteenth century, “under the influence of the legend itself.”4 In light of this evidence, the Catholic Church amended its calendar of saints in 1969 to reduce the Feast of St. Nicholas to the ignoble state of “optional.”
Most of the “history” of St. Nicholas comes from Life of St. Nicholas, a biography written by Michael the Archimandrite in approximately 710, more than four hundred years after Nicholas’ death, and there are no written records of Nicholas’ life any earlier. The only one of the many miracles or acts of generosity attributed to St. Nicholas that appears in the biography by Michael the Archimandrite is the tale of the three dowries, in which St. Nicholas, learning that a father intended to sell his three daughters into sexual slavery because the father did not have money for dowries, tossed three bags of gold through the window of the poor man’s home, where they purportedly landed in stockings hung by the fireplace to dry. Putting aside the inherent incredibility in this tale—all Catholic saints must be credited with miracles but this sounds much more like an extraordinary performance in a midway carnival game—it seems unlikely that such a story could have survived accurately for four centuries in the absence of any written records.
Despite the absence of any documentation that he even existed—or, more likely, because of the absence of any history that would make him controversial or unlovable— by the end of the Middle Ages St. Nicholas had become one of Christianity’s most beloved saints. One reason for the popularity of St. Nicholas may be that a large number of Catholic saints were martyrs, and even in the Middle Ages it seems unlikely that most parents would relish telling young children stories of saints who were burned at the stake, who were stoned to death or, as with St. Lucia, who plucked out their own eyeballs while imprisoned for being a Christian.
As Nicholas’ renown grew, so did the stories that cemented his reputation. Some of these were garden variety miracles, such as saving a boatload of sailors caught in a horrific storm, a legend that helped make him the patron saint of sailors. Others were unique. In one legend, St. Nicholas supposedly restored life to three boys who were cut into pieces by a butcher and pickled in a large crock of brine. After restoring the pickled pieces of human flesh into three living bodies, St. Nicholas supposedly forgave the butcher who had slaughtered the children.
Even stranger, however, the legend says that St. Nicholas made the butcher, known as Père Fouettard “Father Switch” in the French provinces of Alsace and Lorraine and as Houseker in Luxembourg, the saint’s assistant. The story is that after assembling the boys, St. Nicholas required the butcher, as penance for dismembering three boys, to work as an assistant on the saint’s gift-giving rounds in Northeast France and Luxembourg. In other words, the guy’s punishment for dismembering three boys was forcing him to work as disciplinarian for St. Nicholas during his late-night visits to the world’s children–a decision that seems more appropriate for the infamous serial killer John Gacy than one of the kindest and most loved saints of all time.
The more significant factor in establishing St. Nicholas’ fame may have been that during the eleventh century the “relics” of St. Nicholas—that is, what were supposed to be his bones—became the object of a raid in which sailors from the Italian city of Bari purportedly stole the relics from a tomb in Turkey because that region had come under Islamic control. After obtaining a large number of bones that it believed were from St. Nicholas, the City of Bari displayed them as, in effect, a tourist attraction in Italy. Following the success of the Bari raid, sailors from Venice, Italy, conducted a similar raid; their haul was limited to smaller pieces of bone but hundreds of years later those bones were identified as a product of the same body as the Bari relics. Just as the fame of Leonardo da Vinci’s painting of Mona Lisa was greatly enhanced by the theft of the painting from the Louvre in 1911, the fame of St. Nicholas of Myra was greatly increased by the theft of his relics by Catholic sailors. It was after his relics were kept from Islamic control that St. Nicholas became really famous.
In later posts on this subject, I will tell the stories of how St. Nicholas was selected to fill the role of the pagan gods Odin and Berchta in the Germanic Yule ceremonies, leaving gifts for European children on his feast day, December 6; how he was excused from this job in Protestant regions of Europe following the Reformation; how his doppelganger, Sinterklaas, took over his job; and how the name St. Nicholas, but not the saint, was borrowed by Clement C. Moore to create a secular gift-giver in 1822.