How much do we really know about St. Nick? Was he a real saint? What's up with his red and white suit? And why does he bring us gifts? To answer these questions, we contacted Mar Munoz-Visoso, Assistant Director of Media Relations at the US Conference of Catholic Bishops.
The Sainthood of Nick
Much to our surprise, the Santa Claus figure that's come to represent the magic of Christmas (with all it's inherent generosity and benevolence) is actually based on St. Nicholas of Myra, a bishop in the 4th Century, who was cannonized by the Roman Catholic Church. While there are few "hard facts" to support Nicholas' qualifications for sainthood, it's generally agreed that the real St. Nick was a tough, defiant, and uncompromising type of guy. He even did a 10-year stretch in Roman lockup for preaching Christianity.
For an "accurate summary of St Nicholas's life and how he morphed into Santa Claus," Munoz-Visoso recommends Danny Hakim's 1997 article in the Washington Post entitled "Poles Apart: Nicholas of Myra and Jolly New St. Nick." Hakim's version of the St. Nick story includes a very un-Santa-like account of St. Nicholas punching a fellow bishop in the face for suggesting that Jesus was simply a prophet, not the son of God. Not exactly the jolly fellow we line up to vist at the mall each December.
Generous and Jolly
Fortunately, St. Nick's story wasn't all about prison time and punching priests. Before becoming "Father Christmas," St. Nick's greatest claim to fame was intervening in the life of a destitute debtor who was planning to sell his daughters into prositution. As legend would have it, St. Nick dropped by the debtor's home during the night to deliver three bags of gold, thus saving the man's daughters from a life of slavery. While bags of gold aren't exactly the PlayStation your kids are begging for this season, it's still a clear connection to the Santa Claus we all know and love.
Unlike the fat, jolly St. Nick we've seen plastered on Coke cans, though, St. Nicholas of Myra was usually depicted as a skinny, angry man, according to Hakim. That is, until America author Washington Irving got hold of him. Then his whole look changed.
Why the Suit?
One thing that many Americans overlook when attempting to chronicle St. Nicholas' life, says Munoz-Visoso, "Is that many European Catholics (Germany, Poland, Sweden) still celebrate St. Nicholas' Day on Dec 6."
In fact, Hakim reports that the Dutch had their own version of Saint Nick for the celebration -- a red and white suit-wearing Saint they referred to as Sinterklaas. In an attempt to boost the status of Christmas in America, Washington Irving co-opted the Dutch Sinterklaas tradition in his story "History of New York."
In Irving's version, St. Nicholas appears in a flying wagon, smoking a long pipe, and wearing Flemish hose -- a precursor to the suit we all know and love. Irving also plumped St. Nick up a little, because a skinny Santa isn't a jolly Santa. Two decades later, it was Irving's vision of St. Nick that was co-opted by poet Clement Clarke Moore in a little poem we know as "Twas the Night Before Christmas."
And of course we all know that it's Clement Moore's St. Nick who comes down the chimney on Christmas Eve. Following on Moore's description of Santa Claus as a "jolly old elf," artists have favored a shorter, stouter, jollier Santa -- hardly the fiery ex-con who'd punch you in the face for disagreeing with him. In the end, it's probably best that way, don't you think?
Not everyone loves Saint Nick -- check out this hilarious gallery of kids who are scared of Santa!