The Christian Gift-Givers
While St. Nicholas is the best known of the saints drafted to serve as Winter Solstice gift-givers, other saints were also used, including St. Martin and St. Lucia.
St. Lucia was a Christian martyr who died in prison in 304 A.D., and whose feast day, December 13, made her a convenient saint to preside over Christmas festivities in Sweden, Denmark and Italy where Lucia is typically represented by a young woman in a long white dress and a wreath of candles. Before her martyrdom, she reputedly gouged out her own eyes to forestall the advances of a pagan suitor after she converted to Christianity. She is frequently depicted with her eye balls on a platter even though her real eyes are intact.
Martin of Tours was the third bishop of Tours, France, and became one of the most popular Christian figures in France. Prior to the emergence of Nicholas of Myra as the predominate midwinter gift-giver, Martin served in a similar role on his feast day, November 11, and both were likely selected more for their feast date in relation to a region’s midwinter celebration than any religious consideration. He lives on primarily as Pelzmartin, “Martin in furs”, or similar names or appearances adopted after the Reformation made saints unwelcome in Protestant regions.
These two illustrations are significant because they show St. Nicholas as a saint, not the more common depiction of a gift-giver. The first is a religious icon of the type commonly used for saints in Christian churches during used in the Middle Ages. The second is a broadside distributed by John Pintard, a leader of the New-York Historical Society, for the group’s annual meeting on December 6, 1810. Pintard commissioned the woodcut from artist Alexander Anderson