Editor’s note: Adam C. English is author of "The Saint Who Would Be Santa Claus: The True Life and Trials of St. Nicholas of Myra" (Baylor University Press, 2012) and associate professor of religion at Campbell University.
By Adam C. English, Special to CNN
Four years ago, I embarked on a quest to discover the truth about Santa Claus and the original St. Nicholas. My search took me many places, sending me finally across the Atlantic to Bari, on Italy’s Adriatic coast.
The old town of Bari is a brambly, medieval maze of streets and alleyways that cross and crisscross. It is said that the city was intentionally constructed in a topsy-turvy way so that anyone trying to raid it would get swallowed and lost in its labyrinth. If you keep wandering, though, eventually you pop out onto a plaza and see the Basilica di San Nicola.
And there, in a gray tomb, lies the “real” Santa Claus. The basilica housing that tomb dates to the 11th century. You can go into the basilica and pray, rest or just gawk, but the real show lies below.
Down dark steps you will enter a candle-lit crypt, built in 1089, supported by 26 marble columns. Through a grate you will see a large marble and concrete tomb, St Nicholas’ final resting place.
Little is known for certain about the life of Nicholas, whose name means “the people’s champion.” He was born sometime after the year 260 and died sometime after 333.
Christmas exposes atheist divide on dealing with religion
He was bishop of the church in Myra in what was then the Roman province of Lycia, Asia Minor. He attended the Council of Nicaea in 325 with the other bishops of the Christian empire, where he would have seen the Emperor Constantine.
Perhaps he would have slipped into obscurity as nothing more than a minor saint – originally he was a patron saint of sailors – except for one unique story that circulated about him shortly after his death.
It’s such a strange and surprising tale that historians assume it must be based to a large degree on fact. It is the tale of three poor daughters.
Nicholas had been aware of a certain citizen of Patara – in Lycia, modern-day Turkey – who had once been an important and wealthy man of the city but who had fallen on hard times and into extreme poverty. The man grew so desperate that he lacked the very essentials of life.
CNN’s Belief Blog: The faith angles behind the biggest stories
The poor man reasoned that it was impossible to marry off his three beautiful daughters because they lacked dowries for proper marriages to respectable noblemen. He feared they would each in turn be forced into prostitution to support themselves.
Nicholas heard this heartbreaking news and resolved to do something about it. He bagged a sum of gold and in the dead of night, tossed it through the man’s window. The money was used as a dowry for the first daughter.
Sometime later, Nicholas made a second nighttime visit so that the second daughter might marry. Later tradition reported that, finding the windows closed, he dropped the bag of gold down the chimney, where it landed into one of the girl’s stockings that was hanging to dry.
When Nicholas returned to deliver anonymously the third bag of gold for the last daughter, the curious father was ready. When he heard a bag hit the floor, the father leapt to his feet and raced outside, where he caught the mysterious benefactor.
Nicholas revealed his identity to the father but made him swear never to tell anyone what he’d done. He did not want praise or recognition for his generosity.
Follow the CNN Belief Blog on Twitter
More impressive than its connection with modern-day Santa Claus traditions is the tale’s historical uniqueness. The vast majority of saint stories that circulated in the early church involved extraordinary miracles and healings or dramatic martyrdoms and confessions of Christ.
They involved monks who went into the desert and experienced the tempting of the devil and the burning of the sun, mothers who’d had their entrails spilled onto the Colosseum floor for Christ, mystics who saw the heavens open in their visions.
But the Nicholas story was about a regular family facing a familiar crisis to which ordinary people could relate. Those in the pews had never heard anything like it.
When medieval Christians looked at the great church frescoes, basilica mosaics and cathedral stained glass pictures of Jesus, Mary, John the Baptist, the apostles and saints of old, there was little to distinguish one saint from another.
But St. Nicholas was easy to spot. He was always pictured carrying three bags of gold. The story of his helping the three sisters jumped off the dry page of history and into the minds and imaginations of young girls and boys and adults.
Indeed, Nicholas would become the most popular nonbiblical saint in the pre-modern church. More churches would be dedicated to him than to any other person except Mary, the mother of Jesus. The first medieval drama that was not intended as a worship ritual and that was written in the vernacular was about Nicholas.
No wonder, then, that sailors from Bari wanted his bones. In the 1080s, Seljuk Turks invaded Lycia and Asia Minor (what is now Turkey). It seemed only a matter of time before they would plunder the tomb of St. Nicholas.
The Barians resolved that his bones be moved, or “translated,” to use the expression of the day. Under the nose of the Turkish overlords in control of the area 47 Barian sailors disembarked at Myra disguised as pilgrims.
They quietly made their way to the church of St. Nicholas, hiding swords and shovels under their clothes. As soon as they entered the church, they barred the doors, smashed the marble cover and looked inside.
They found more than they had bargained for: Nicholas’ bones were floating in a sweet-smelling liquid like oil or water. Known as the myrrh or manna of St. Nicholas, the liquid was highly valued for its purported miraculous and therapeutic qualities.
The bones were taken back to Italy and a basilica was erected in Bari to house them. To this day, Nicholas’ tomb continues to excrete a small amount of watery liquid.
Every year on May 9, one of the Dominican friars charged with the upkeep and care of the Basilica di San Nicola squats down in front of a small opening in the tomb and slowly collects a vile of the myrrh of St. Nicholas. It is then diluted in holy water and bottled for pilgrims and visitors.
So there is a lot more to the story of St. Nick than meets the eye. His bold initiative to help three poor girls in need sparked a tradition of gift-giving that has carried into modern times. The magical Christmas Eve visits from Santa Claus represent the vestige of this old story. Instead of fixating on the commercialization and greed that plague the modern Santa Claus, I chose to see in it the lasting power of a simple act of kindness.
More than a footnote to the legend of Santa Claus, Nicholas is a model of Christian kindness, an inspiration for charity and a saint to be remembered. He challenges us at this time of year to give not only to those we know and love, but also to those we do not know and especially to those who find themselves in need.
The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of Adam C. English.
Very interesting comment from one blogger about non-believers coming up from out of the woodwork through social media. It has given me the thought that the Internet is being used as the perfect tool by the dark spirits to spread their misinformation and lies regarding the existence of God. All of the greatest logic being spouted by non-believers will just lead them deeper and deeper into the forest of desperation from which there is no way out. Try as they might to find the clearing before nightfall will be impossible for these lost souls.
Your existence on earth proves beyond a shadow of a doubt the existence of God. Case closed!! The message might get skewed along the way because of cultural differences, but so what! Make no mistake about it-God is real, despite the best arguments put forth by the atheist. AT's-phone home. Your heavenly Father is patiently waiting for you to check in with HIm.
For all you pagans, Merry Christmas. For all you believers, Christmas comes every day!!
You might have a god – I don't.
Logic drives a person into desperation?
Logic, mathematics, engineering, and science has brought you the Internet you're communicating on, saved countless lives via medicine and safety methods and devices. You are ungrateful.
"Your existence on earth proves beyond a shadow of a doubt the existence of God. Case closed!! "
Your ignorance, arrogance and delusions are alarming. I hope you get well soon.
Our existence only proves we exist. It does not proves there's a god or that there are aliens or that you're a figment of my imagination. We created the gods, yes, there used to be lots of them, to explain what we couldn't. For example, once we knew why the sun rose and set each day, that was the end of the sun god. God is a coping method. Perhaps you might benefit for taking a class on philosophy or perhaps biology over the holidays. I think you'd find topics to be quite enlightening.
Santa is cool. He isn't worried about his weight. He has a lot of friends that he works with and enjoys his job. He is always jolly and gave Rudolph a leadership role when others were bullying him. I bet Mrs. Claus is a real good cook. I like the fact she keeps a low profile and supports Santa and his elves even though they put in long hours getting ready for Christmas. Santa deserves our full support and we need to stop questioning his background. If there is something in his past that he did that was a bit naughty it was because he was younger then and was just sowing a few wind oats. There are a lot of rumors about where Santa came from but that just comes with the territory of him being an "A List" celebrity.
If the Santa Claus is based of the Coca-Cola Symbol then how come in the old cartoons & the drawings that were of Santa Claus. He has a big white beard, he's a little chubby, has a Red & White Suit, & black boots. Also why is he surrounded by reindeer, snow, elves, & has a Christmas Tree( Evergreen Conifer-Pine/Fur).
how old do you think Coca cola is?
Santa use to be skinny in the older drawings.
Who cares if Christmas has become Idolized. People even the mean actually treat others with kindness. Many different walks of life treat others with kindness more than the norm during this time of year. I praise that & hope it continues. Also it is for the Magic & Anticipation for the Children. See when people grow up & become to damn Head Strong or Stubborn we/they forget about Magic, Fairy Tales, & Stories from long ago. Let it be. I bet you liked it when you actually believed & then for some reason you became cynical or a downer. Their was a reason it started & it became something greater then the Saint ever would have imagined.
Pat, only someone too lazy to do their own research would assume Easter is closer to Paschal than to Eoster. But here is some original research (1835ish)
We Germans to this day call April ostermonat, and ôstarmânoth is found as early as Eginhart (temp. Car. Mag.). The great christian festival, which usually falls in April or the end of March, bears in the oldest of OHG remains the name ôstarâ ... it is mostly found in the plural, because two days ... were kept at Easter. This Ostarâ, like the [Anglo-Saxon] Eástre, must in heathen religion have denoted a higher being, whose worship was so firmly rooted, that the christian teachers tolerated the name, and applied it to one of their own grandest anniversaries.
Grimm notes that "all of the nations bordering on us have retained the Biblical pascha; even Ulphilas writes paska, not áustrô, though he must have known the word" Grimm details that the Old High German adverb ôstar "expresses movement towards the rising sun", as did the Old Norse term austr, and potentially also Anglo-Saxon ēastor and Gothic áustr. Grimm compares these terms to the identical Latin term auster. Grimm says that the cult of the goddess may have worshiped an Old Norse form, Austra, or that her cult may have already been extinct by the time of Christianization.
Too long, too boring.....
The contemporary Santa Claus bears no resemblance to the saint. He is a marketing fabrication created by the coca cola company in the early 20th century. When you celebrate santa claus, you celebrate a demonic medium who sells sweet sorcerous potions to developing children.
Children, keep away from idols. – Apostle Peter
Children and everyone else, keep away from idiots.
Just once in while, 23skiddoo, do some actual research. You look even more idiotic when you don'thttp://www.snopes.com/holidays/christmas/santa/cocacola.asp
Keep children away from religion, and coco cola- Niknak
Those that pride themselves in the false, disgusting disease called atheism are fools. It is just much more obvious to all normal people this time of year.
Trolling should never be this boring.
To the midwest fool
then don't troll
Thats right, believing in a made up fairy tale is so rational.
Did you catch the part about the snake oil that they mix with "holy" water and sell to the sheep as some kind of magical protectant?
Gotta love and admire religion to find creative ways to seperate the fools from their money.
felix, midwest isn't the troll.
How many names have you had?
I really hope your daddy finally comes through on his promise to get you that pony you always wanted, that way you won't be so.... you know, crazy. Course you will probably kill it when the voices in your head can't decide if the poor pony is a believer in your deity, but we will cross that bridge in due time.
"Those that pride themselves in the false, disgusting disease called atheism are fools"
A disease worth having. :-) I rather like my reality, it makes so much more sense than what you believe in (a god that believes in child abuse; Rape; pedophilia; torture; mass murder; sacrifices; teenage pregnancies; control over women and children; slavery; bigotry; misogny...just to list a few.).
As different cultures accepted Christianity, they kept some of their old traditions and tied them to their new faith. Heck Easter is actually named for a pagan goddess-Eostre. Not a big deal.
accepted? more like forced.
Only somebody with no knowledge of other languages would think that the feast Easter is derived from Eostre. Every other major language's word for Easter is derived from the Latin Pascha, which itself comes from the Jewish word for Passover. Catholics, for example, regularly refer to the "Paschal Mystery" and light the Paschal Candle at the Easter Vigil.
Of course, in your fantasy world, that is how it worked. LOL.
Pat the holiday doesn't derive from her. The name Easter, the eggs and the rabbit do. Or do you think Jesus handed eggs out after the resurrection?
Great story and believable . It's my favourite time of year,
Merry Christmas to all.
A history lesson: Santa Claus, aka Sinterklaas in Europe, is an old white religious saint from Spain with a long beard on a white horse who drops presents in the chimney for the kids who have been good. He has black helpers who help him hand out presents & sweets. If you have been bad however you get hit with a stick and are put into a bag with the other bad kids and brought back to Spain.
I have a feeling that more than half of these commenters are going to Spain real soon...
Josephine, I like the way you think.:D
And then there are those of us who are bothered because the author misspelled "vial" as "vile".
Yes... and that would make you anaI retentive and infantile.
Hardly. It is indicative of a meticulous reader; nothing infantile or a nal retentive about it. You are just irritated because you didn't even notice the error.
Gosh lawdy yes, being able to understand that someone used an incorrect spelling of a word is clearly the devil influencing you. Drive out knowledge and leave yourself an empty vessel ready to accept whatever good news some jackwagon wants to give you.
Try to keep up with the times, Damocles! The new term is "ass waffle."
Ass waffle? Aaaahahahaha!
Now explain how much Christmas really has to do with Jesus & Christianity by telling us all about how this Italian/Turkish Saint flew around on a sleigh pulled by magical flying animals and magically entered peoples homes through the fireplace. Then provide some examples and excuses about how he was really from the snowy north pole and had elves working in his carpentry shop! Santa Claus is a representation of of the pagan "Yule-God" or Thor, not some Turkish Catholic Saint, nice try.
He CAN do it dude, because he has the magic dust!
There is also a legend that at the Council of Nicea, St. Nicholas got in an argument with the heretic Arius and ended it by punching him in the face. He was, of course, reprimanded by his brother bishops. Passionate defender of the faith? Now that's a Santa I'll tell my kids about!
Thousands of enemies of Rome were crucified. The victim is unable to speak and dies by suffocation very very slowly. It is a horrible death. Yet strangely Christianity celebrates this form of victimization by making it an icon of their faith. Had their savior been strangled to death they would they have their icon as just a piece of cloth. What sane rational parent would chose to sacrifice his child. Not any creator worth worshiping. Christianity is a repellent faith. It really has no place in a caring world.
Thousands of enemies of Rome were crucified. = fact
The victim is unable to speak and dies by suffocation very very slowly = fact
. It is a horrible death. = opinion
Yet strangely Christianity celebrates this form of victimization by making it an icon of their faith. = There is a symbolism behind it of self sacrifice in favor for others
Had their savior been strangled to death they would they have their icon as just a piece of cloth. = hypothetical and irrelevant
What sane rational parent would chose to sacrifice his child.= no such thing as God anyway irrelevant point
Not any creator worth worshiping. = Opinion
Christianity is a repellent faith. It really has no place in a caring world. = Again both your opinions
Add to that..crucifiction being a horrible death is an opinion I agree with.
That's how brain washing and indoctrinations works. You can make the most repulsive beliefs admirable. I was always stunned that Christians admire the story of Abraham who went so far as to slay his son for god but at the last minute his god didn't make him go through with it. How sick is that?
Christians adopted the cross as a symbol because it was, at the time, a major symbol of fear. It was their way of saying that they were not afraid, and that God was stronger than the cross, while everybody else was afraid of crucifixion. Think of the pink triangle as a more recent example of a similar action.
Canadian Jack: First off, it's always nice to see another Canuck on here. Hope you're enjoying this wonderful snowy day. :-)
Second, Even as a firm non-believer I am able to see it where religion still has some pre<valence in this world. If you look at the 1st world countries (Canada, USA, Japan, UK, Noway, The Netherlands in general), you'll note that most are secular and far more advanced but yet travel throughout those places to the rural area's or to thrid world countries...you'll find that everyone knows everyone...these people grew up together, they went to church together-in fact chances are church was/is the biggest social setting. So as much as we may not see the need for it-they do....it's the social game. It's a crutch and unless they break free and get out in the world, they remain stuck. I have no issue respecting their right to believe-I think it's bat shit crazy; my issue is when they try to use it to dictate how the rest of the free world should live and they do so blindly. Non-believers are steadily coming out of the woodwork and the numbers will continue to increase thanks to social media. :-)
I would not put the USA is the list of 1st world countries.
One of the greatest mistakes that Atheists make from places such as Canada is that the Christian faith is in decline. While this is true of the nations that you talk about, the Christian faith is growing faster now more than any other time in history.
There are now over 200 Million believers in Jesus in China and 100 Million in India where just a few generations ago there were less than a million in each nation.
And the biggest reason why the church is in decline in countries like Canada has more to do with the imploding of state churches such as the United Church, Roman Catholic, and Anglican traditions that taught not faith but tradition.
Christianity has never been a regional faith, and it never will be. And Christianity is not about traditions, it is about relationships.
@TASBEM, nobody cares about your list of first-world countries or what you would or wouldn't put on it. I doubt you have a clue as to what a first-world country is.
I really enjoyed reading this and I hope CNN will do more of these pieces. I have a question for the author - Why did the citizens make it easy for the thieves to steal St. Nick's bones?
What was the significance of myrr? Is it an embalming fluid? Was it meant to preseve the bones?
Thanks for the question and great discussion. The seizure of the bones from Myra is a fascinating incident and we are fortunate to have first hand accounts of it. The myrrh is water from condensation int the tomb, but one of the stranger pieces of the puzzle to be sure. Pilgrims can still procure it from the basilica gift shop today
Santa Clause is the American version of sinterklaas... Made the way he looks now by Coca cola.
I Love Coke & Santa !
god does not exist, so therefore santa is not real. I know, why don't you guys get some brains. Here is my proof that god does not exist. This is something, like science that you can test for yourself, and don't have to take my word for it:
This is a reply from me to someone trying to tell me to just accept something. I quoted their statement first after several discussions, then followed it with my response of the PROOF that god does not exist. The truth needs to be known.
"Now this is hard to understand and logic is not going to help you."
This is where i refuse to not use logic. See everything you are quoting is from a book. I never met jesus, and neither have you. The fact that I am using logic, and my brain (that god created if he does exist), proves that he actually does NOT exist. I know because I cried for a very long time, when i did not get an answer after asking him to reveal himself to me FOR 10 YEARS. This is very difficult, because I really did want him to exist, but I REFUSE TO BE DISHONEST TO MYSELF TO FEEL MORE COMFORTABLE. As for people that claim to have faith as your self. You don't really have faith, neither do many people that claim they have faith. Deep down, you really don't know that god exists. My proof: EVERY IMPORTANT CHARACTER IN THE BIBLE THAT DID RECEIVE FAITH, HAD DIRECT CONTACT WITH GOD IN SOME FORM. For example, the 12 apostles, lived with jesus for 3 years. They lived with god, they did not have to just think it’s true, they experienced it. You keep going down the line, moses, abraham, all of them had some strong communication with god WITHOUT JUST ACCEPTING, THEY EXPERIENCED GOD. Even after jesus died and came back to life by the holy spirit. Thomas said, I will not believe until i put my finger in his wound. WHAT DID JESUS ACTUALLY DO???? HE SHOWED UP. I know this because i truly asked, with all of my heart. And one thing i can always rely on is that i stayed honest to my self this entire journey. Logic and truth is the only thing left, and we began this discussion on logic and FACTS.
So in conclusion, humans can not be fairer than god, and when people say that we can't understand god, that is different than going against all common sense, reasoning and logic that he CREATED for us to use. So how do i know that you don't really know that god exists? Simple, this god created both you and me. So how come you know that he exists, by just accepting, when I actually went directly to him to find out if he is there???? The answer is simple, because god can not be less fair than a human, he therefore does not exist. A true loving parent does not favor one child over another, and in the same sense, god if he does exist, can not play favorites, and allows for all humans on earth to simply accept something. Even now, when you read a book, any book, we as humans, we are skeptical, we don't just blindly believe everything we read. If i gave you the koran, you do not blindly accept it, you ask questions. Well jesus, if he is god, did not come down with a book, there was no bible like you have today for 1000 years later. jesus came down so that he personally delivered his true message with out a book. if god wanted us to know that he exists through books, he could have just dropped a million books from the sky, instead of coming down and going through all of that torture.
Many times i was tempted to just accept and say this is true, only because it made some sense, but it isn't that simple.
For example, if you and I are in the same room, and there was an apple in the room, we WOULD NOT DEBATE OR EVEN HAVE A SLIGHT DISCUSSION ABOUT IF THE APPLE EXIST OR DOES NOT EXIST. The fact that people debate the existence of god (such as you and i) means it is not as simple as ACCEPTING.
I hope some of this logic (truth) got through to you, if not, then you can try asking your self for 10 years, and truly wait for an answer. Not just coincidences that many people mistake for god, but truly wait, until he does answer you. If you read your bible, you will notice that he did in fact answer all of the main characters, whether it is in the form of a burning bush, or blinding st. Paul. it was an act of the supernatural that the characters in the bible received, before they actually claimed to have TRUE FAITH.
GOD does exist ! Didn't you see the movie he made with John Denver ?
I feel very sorry for you.
God DOES exist. Can I prove that to you in a way you would consider acceptable? No. Not to you.
But He has proven to me that He does, IN FACT, exist. Not once, but three times. As a scientist I can tell you it wasn't easy believing in what I witnessed. But I also know that some things in this world are inexplicable, regardless of their simplicity. Why me? I have NO clue. But I can tell you, God lives, He exists, and Always will.
So if you can't see it, it doesn't exist, am I right? So I must presume that air doesn't exist. I can't see it.
Aaaaahahahahaha.... oh... my.... *wipes away tears of laughter* 'my deity proved to me three times that it exists, why me? Gosh golly wow I don't know why, but I feel ever so special that I hear the voice in my head that other believers do. Now I'm part of the in crowd. Oh and by the way *wink wink, nudge nudge* I'm a scientist'.
I'll say it again: Aaaaaaaaahhhhhhhhhhhhhhhahahahahahahahaha!
I don't know what kind of scientist you are TJ, except a mad one if you believe in a fairy tale.
As a scientist you must be concerned with proof of the hypothesis.
Well, then I would like you to provide proof of your god hypothesis.
Because if you can't, then as a scientist, you must know that the hypothesis is then considered false.
I would laugh at you like I laughed at good old TJ, but your post is too sad to muster up a laugh. Shame on you for destroying my mirth at this time of year.
chiniquy that is a pathetic example of reasoning. It also shows how little you know of the Christian faith. It must be bad to be so bitter.
For CNN to find some 'news', they could assign a reporter to interview orthodox Christians, study the Bible a bit and do some research. Perhaps then we wouldn't have articles on Santa Claus. Imagine you clowns doing this to Mohammed. Don't think so.
It's an inspiring story of human generosity. Let's just take it at that.
Merry Christmas, Happy Hanukah, Happy Solstice - happy whatever you celebrate.
The CNN Belief Blog covers the faith angles of the day's biggest stories, from breaking news to politics to entertainment, fostering a global conversation about the role of religion and belief in readers' lives. It's edited by CNN's Daniel Burke with contributions from Eric Marrapodi and CNN's worldwide news gathering team.