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My Take: The Christmas message of the real St. Nicholas
The figure of Santa Claus is based on a fourth-century saint, the original St. Nicholas.
December 22nd, 2012
10:00 PM ET

My Take: The Christmas message of the real St. Nicholas

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.

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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.

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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.

- CNN Belief Blog

Filed under: Christianity • Christmas • Opinion

soundoff (465 Responses)
  1. 0G-No gods, ghosts, goblins or ghouls

    "It’s such a strange and surprising tale that historians assume it must be based to a large degree on fact."

    In any other domain, such a story would be discarded for lack of evidence and high improbability, but not if delusional believers claim otherwise.

    December 24, 2012 at 1:36 am |
  2. hemo

    Saint Nick was a revered holy warrior that destroyed non believers and brown people. he preached a message of peace and love and i think celebrating that is great!

    December 24, 2012 at 1:24 am |
  3. Pedro

    This is the first article in a long time that does not bash Christianity when it mentions it. Good job CNN thank you for a little respect! Thats all we ask, not special status. And yes St. Nick is someone we should all try to emulate!

    December 24, 2012 at 1:01 am |
  4. Alex

    Happy Dies Natalis Solis Invicti !

    December 24, 2012 at 12:01 am |
  5. Reality

    Why St. Nick is no longer relevant in today's world:

    Only for the new members of this blog–

    Putting the kibosh/”google” on all religion in less than ten seconds: Priceless !!!

    • As far as one knows or can tell, there was no Abraham i.e. the foundations of Judaism, Christianity and Islam are non-existent.

    • As far as one knows or can tell, there was no Moses i.e the pillars of Judaism, Christianity and Islam have no strength of purpose.

    • There was no Gabriel i.e. Islam fails as a religion. Christianity partially fails.

    • There was no Easter i.e. Christianity completely fails as a religion.

    • There was no Moroni i.e. Mormonism is nothing more than a business cult.

    • Sacred/revered cows, monkey gods, castes, reincarnations and therefore Hinduism fails as a religion.

    • Fat Buddhas here, skinny Buddhas there, reincarnated/reborn Buddhas everywhere makes for a no on Buddhism.

    Added details available upon written request.

    A quick search will put the kibosh on any other groups calling themselves a religion.

    e.g. Taoism

    "The origins of Taoism are unclear. Traditionally, Lao-tzu who lived in the sixth century is regarded as its founder. Its early philosophic foundations and its later beliefs and rituals are two completely different ways of life. Today (1982) Taoism claims 31,286,000 followers.

    Legend says that Lao-tzu was immaculately conceived by a shooting star; carried in his mother's womb for eighty-two years; and born a full grown wise old man. "

    December 23, 2012 at 11:19 pm |
    • Finallyawake

      You wonderfully fit one of G.K. Chesterton's timeless quotes:

      “If there were no God, there would be no Atheists.”

      You clearly spend vast energies on something you don't believe.

      Now go home and re-think your life.....please!

      December 24, 2012 at 12:11 am |
    • OTOH

      finallyawake,

      Atheists do not believe that your "God" exists. The *idea* of it ('him') does exist, however. Believers *do* exist, and they are the ones who are trying to affect our lives and rule the country (yea, the world) according to their various fantasies and superst'itions.

      December 24, 2012 at 12:27 am |
    • Moby Schtick

      If there were no unicorns, there'd be nobody who disbelieved in unicorns.

      What stupidity. Some moron puts forth a stupid idea, and I can't disbelieve that idea without my disbelief proving that the idea is valid? Go get a basic education in logic, moron.

      December 24, 2012 at 1:28 am |
    • tallulah13

      What a silly quote. I have a quote for you. I made it myself:

      "How can people believe in god when there isn't any proof of one?"

      December 24, 2012 at 1:43 am |
    • Finallyawake

      Moby Schtick
      If there were no unicorns, there'd be nobody who disbelieved in unicorns.

      What stupidity. Some moron puts forth a stupid idea, and I can't disbelieve that idea without my disbelief proving that the idea is valid? Go get a basic education in logic, moron.

      Let me help you a little...how many people do you see spending their lives seriously trying to convince the world that unicorns don't exist? I'll give you the answer: pretty much zero. Why? Cuz most of the human race knows this. The fact that so many atheists are stimulated into arguments is a very strong indicator that the object of their focus is much more likely to be reality.

      Also, your resorting to hurling insults could be one of two things:
      1. You are stung by my observation and a seed has been planted.
      Or
      2. You can't come up with anything of substance and thus the classic child-like "uh...your just stupid" response.

      December 24, 2012 at 2:12 am |
    • Reality

      Summarizing with a prayer: (only for the new members of this blog)

      The Apostles' Creed 2012: (updated by yours truly and based on the studies of historians and theologians of the past 200 years)

      Should I believe in a god whose existence cannot be proven
      and said god if he/she/it exists resides in an unproven,
      human-created, spirit state of bliss called heaven??

      I believe there was a 1st century CE, Jewish, simple,
      preacher-man who was conceived by a Jewish carpenter
      named Joseph living in Nazareth and born of a young Jewish
      girl named Mary. (Some say he was a mamzer.)

      Jesus was summarily crucified for being a temple rabble-rouser by
      the Roman troops in Jerusalem serving under Pontius Pilate,

      He was buried in an unmarked grave and still lies
      a-mouldering in the ground somewhere outside of
      Jerusalem.

      Said Jesus' story was embellished and "mythicized" by
      many semi-fiction writers. A descent into Hell, a bodily resurrection
      and ascension stories were promulgated to compete with the
      Caesar myths. Said stories were so popular that they
      grew into a religion known today as Catholicism/Christianity
      and featuring dark-age, daily wine to blood and bread to body rituals
      called the eucharistic sacrifice of the non-atoning Jesus.

      Amen
      (references used are available upon request)

      December 24, 2012 at 8:07 am |
  6. John P. Tarver

    God bless us, one and all.

    December 23, 2012 at 11:10 pm |

    • Or at least bless someone, God.

      December 23, 2012 at 11:11 pm |
  7. Bible = Morality

    Finally a nice article by CNN....

    December 23, 2012 at 10:57 pm |
    • John P. Tarver

      With the fiscal cliff resembling the Romney economic plan so closely, I have to believe we will get well economically through greater gridlock. This santa calus article is a reminder of the gift the American People voted for in November, less governmnet.

      December 23, 2012 at 11:05 pm |
  8. Happy Festivus Everyone

    [youtube=http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=dS7-jcsB_WQ&w=640&h=390]

    December 23, 2012 at 9:27 pm |
    • Akira

      The Festivus Pole!
      A friend put one in front of my door a few years ago, knocked, and ran away...it was funny as hell!
      Had a little sign on it that said "Happy Festivus!"

      December 23, 2012 at 10:07 pm |
    • Al

      Unlike Christmas, there is no pressure on Festivus. No one gets stressed out. No one get depressed about Festivus. More people should throw Festivus parties.

      December 23, 2012 at 10:22 pm |
  9. Max Anastopulos

    Two important facts you left out:

    1. Santa Claus comes from a Dutch mis-translation of Saint Nicholas: Sentre NiClause
    2. Saint Nicholas was Greek Orthodox. So, yes, Santa Clause is Greek

    December 23, 2012 at 9:20 pm |
    • GAW

      So we should leave baklavas and milk this year?

      December 23, 2012 at 9:22 pm |
    • I wonder

      Max,

      Maybe you can provide evidence for that name that you came up with - the Dutch call him Sinterklaas (guess what... no 'e' on the end of that either - it's Claus, not Clause).

      http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Sinterklaas

      December 23, 2012 at 10:15 pm |
    • Niko

      Although Byzantium (lasted over 1000 years) is the continuation of the Roman and Greek Empire, little of it is mentioned today. Why wasn't it mentioned in this article as the East was to a greater extent influenced by Greek culture. How sad this part of history is completely forgotten in light of it offering so much to humanity (was the continuation of the Roman and Greek Empire). Therefore, if we learn more about Byzantine history perhaps we can better know Saint Nick.

      December 23, 2012 at 10:44 pm |
    • John P. Tarver

      Niko- Stephen founded the first gentile church, among the Greeks. This fact is paradoxical to the Catholic belief that Peter foundeed the Gentile Church. Christ was calling Peter Sisyfus with the rock reference, but what was important to the Papal line was the Dominichi cliam of being the decendants of Peter. I would not expect much discussion of the Greek Church here in the West; except for our cross post WWI.

      December 23, 2012 at 11:00 pm |
  10. tony

    Christmas is St. Salesman's Day. Just ask any Corporation that donates to the Republican Party and likes "right to work" legislation.

    December 23, 2012 at 8:59 pm |
  11. tony

    If god existed, why couldn't he kill the Egyptian army the day before, when they actually caught up withe the escaping Israelites? Exodus 14:20

    December 23, 2012 at 8:41 pm |
    • John P. Tarver

      The lesson taught to the Egyptians would protect Judah for centuries after. It was not until after the King of Judah attacked the Egyptions, without provacation, during their campaign against Babylon, that Egypt would defeat Judah and haul off half the wealth in the Temple of Cedars.

      December 23, 2012 at 8:44 pm |
    • Reality

      Not so fast- (only for the new members of this blog):

      origin: http://query.nytimes.com/gst/abstract.html?res=F20E1EFE35540C7A8CDDAA0894DA404482 NY Times review and important enough to reiterate.

      New Torah For Modern Minds

      “Abraham, the Jewish patriarch, probably never existed. Nor did Moses. (prob•a•bly
      Adverb: Almost certainly; as far as one knows or can tell).

      The entire Exodus story as recounted in the Bible probably never occurred. The same is true of the tumbling of the walls of Jericho. And David, far from being the fearless king who built Jerusalem into a mighty capital, was more likely a provincial leader whose reputation was later magnified to provide a rallying point for a fledgling nation.

      Such startling propositions - the product of findings by archaeologists digging in Israel and its environs over the last 25 years - have gained wide acceptance among non-Orthodox rabbis. But there has been no attempt to disseminate these ideas or to discuss them with the laity - until now.

      The United Synagogue of Conservative Judaism, which represents the 1.5 million Conservative Jews in the United States, has just issued a new Torah and commentary, the first for Conservatives in more than 60 years. Called "Etz Hayim" ("Tree of Life" in Hebrew), it offers an interpretation that incorporates the latest findings from archaeology, philology, anthropology and the study of ancient cultures. To the editors who worked on the book, it represents one of the boldest efforts ever to introduce into the religious mainstream a view of the Bible as a human rather than divine doc-ument.

      The notion that the Bible is not literally true "is more or less settled and understood among most Conservative rabbis," observed David Wolpe, a rabbi at Sinai Temple in Los Angeles and a contributor to "Etz Hayim." But some congregants, he said, "may not like the stark airing of it." Last Passover, in a sermon to 2,200 congregants at his synagogue, Rabbi Wolpe frankly said that "virtually every modern archaeologist" agrees "that the way the Bible describes the Exodus is not the way that it happened, if it happened at all." The rabbi offered what he called a "LITANY OF DISILLUSION”' about the narrative, including contradictions, improbabilities, chronological lapses and the absence of corroborating evidence. In fact, he said, archaeologists digging in the Sinai have "found no trace of the tribes of Israel - not one shard of pottery."

      December 23, 2012 at 11:22 pm |
  12. John P. Tarver

    The Jesus of Luke was born with purchased Roman citizenship, under an astrological event that occured on May 14, 6 BCE. The celebration of the Winter solstace is much older.

    December 23, 2012 at 8:38 pm |
    • Reality

      Christmas, the embellished story of the birth of a simple, preacher man named Jesus.

      As per most contemporary NT exegetes, his parents were Mary and Joseph although some say Jesus was a mamzer, the result of a pre-marital relationship between Mary and a Roman soldier.

      http:// http://www.earlychristianwritings.com/theories.html

      Jesus was not born in Bethlehem at least the one we are familiar with and there were no pretty wingie thingies singing/talking from on high, no slaughter of the innocents by Herod, no visiting wise men and no escape to Egypt.

      "Mark's gospel, the most historical of the four gospels, does not even mention the event.

      And from Professor Gerd Ludemann in his book, Jesus After 2000 Years, pp. 269-272, "The historical yield of the Lukan infancy narrative in respect to the birth of Jesus is virtually nil.

      Matt 1:18-25: , pp. 123-124, "The fathering of Jesus from the Holy Spirit and his birth from the virgin Mary are unhistorical". Ludemann gives a very detailed analysis to support his conclusions. One part being the lack of attestations to these events and the late time strata of said story.

      "Lüdemann [pp. 261-63) discounts Luke's account as a legend deriving from Jewish Hellenistic circles that were concerned to hold together the procreation of the Spirit, the authentic sonship of the Messiah and the virginal conception. "

      Then there are these additional conclusions:

      Professor Bruce Chilton

      "In [Rabbi Jesus: An Intimate Biography] (2000), Chilton develops the idea of Jesus as a mamzer; someone whose irregular birth circu-mstances result in their exclusion from full participation in the life of the community. He argues for the natural pa-ternity of Joseph and finds no need for a miraculous conception. In his subsequent reconstruction of Jesus' life, Chilton suggests that this sustained personal experience of exclusion played a major role in Jesus' self-ident-ity, his concept of God and his spiritual quest.

      Professor John Dominic Crossan

      "In [Historical Jesus] (p. 371) Crossan treats this cluster, like 007 Of Davids Lineage, as an example of the interplay of prophecy and history in the development of the Jesus traditions.

      "In [Birth of Christianity] (pp. 26-29) Crossan uses Luke's account of Jesus' conception and birth to explore ethical issues concerning the public interpretation of the past. He notes the tendency of Christian scholars to disregard "pagan" birth legends while investing great effort in the defence of biblical birth narratives. He concludes:

      I do not accept the divine conception of either Jesus or Augustus as factual history, but I believe that God is incarnate in the Jewish peasant poverty of Jesus and not in the Roman imperial power of Augustus. "

      "The following ancient parallels to Jesus' miraculous conception should be noted:

      Birth of Moses (Exod 2:1-10)
      Birth of Plato (Diogenes Laertius, Lives of Eminent Philosophers, 3.45) [see Acts of Jesus, p. 507]
      Birth of Alexander the Great (Plutarch, Parallel Lives, 2.1-3.5) [see Acts of Jesus, p. 502f]
      Birth of Apollonius (Philostratus, Life of Apollonius, I.4) [see Acts of Jesus, p. 505]"

      And some final words from Thomas Jefferson, not a contemporary NT scholar, but indeed a very learned man:

      "And the day will come,
      when the mystical generation of Jesus,
      by the Supreme Being as His Father,
      in the womb of a virgin,
      will be classed with the fable of the generation of Minerva”

      Letter to John Adams, from Monticello, April 11, 1823.

      Conclusion: Christmas is historically a non-event. Ditto for the Feast of the Magi and the solemnity of Mary aka New Years day.

      December 23, 2012 at 11:23 pm |
  13. John P. Tarver

    Ba'alzebub is the reason for the season.

    December 23, 2012 at 8:30 pm |
    • GAW

      Are you the same John P. Tarver as John P. Tarver or a different John P. Tarver who just happens to have the same name as John P. Tarver?

      December 23, 2012 at 9:21 pm |
    • John P. Tarver

      GAW- I have two imitators here today. Lost souls seeking ...

      December 23, 2012 at 9:59 pm |
  14. Ed F.

    So whats the message? NONE

    Nicklaus had nothing to do with Christmas, it wasn't even celebrated in his area in his time.

    Hilarious that some guy collect the water from some underground well or leaking wall and they thinks it's a miracle.

    There is no god and there is nothing other worldly about any saint.

    December 23, 2012 at 8:12 pm |
  15. tallulah13

    Happy Saturnalia!

    December 23, 2012 at 7:21 pm |
  16. Roger that

    Happy Festivus everyone!!!

    December 23, 2012 at 7:20 pm |
    • GAW

      I almost forgot...Get out your Festivus Pole.

      December 23, 2012 at 9:24 pm |
  17. Woho

    Christmas is birth of Jesus

    December 23, 2012 at 7:18 pm |
    • Ed F.

      Christmas is a made up holiday that attempted to take away the pagan holiday.

      December 23, 2012 at 8:13 pm |
  18. Chick-a-dee

    MERRY CHRISTMAS TO ALL!

    Now go out & spread some love around.

    December 23, 2012 at 7:14 pm |
  19. askurian

    An additional footnote I would add to the history of St. Nicholas, Bishop of Myra, is that he was uncompromising about the deity of Christ so much to the extent (arguably to the extreme) that he slapped Arias the heretic during the Council of Nicaea for diluting the nature of Christ from the most well known and well attested understanding that He is both fully God and fully man. To think that Santa would be aghast at the notion that Christ could be diluted from Christmas causes a paradigm shift on the idea of Christmas.

    December 23, 2012 at 7:12 pm |
    • Kev

      Isn't it likely that St. Nicholas didn't celebrate Christmas?

      December 23, 2012 at 7:28 pm |
    • Akira

      I've read that, too.
      Interesting little man, that St. Nicholas.

      Kev:
      You're probably right, given that Dec. 25th wasn't designated as the birth day of Jesus until years later.

      December 23, 2012 at 8:36 pm |
    • Niko

      Askurian, thanks for sharing this remarkable this enlightening information about the Coucil of Nicaea. If the School of Constantinople still existed, we all could have learnt a bit more about Byzantium instead of ignoring it like so many intellecutals today do for without it we would never have had the Renaisance (refugee scholars fled to Italy after the fall of Constantinople). Therefore, Santa Clause lived in the Greek Eastern part of the Roman Empire and like the article states, he would most likely have met Constantine at the Council of Nicaea.

      December 23, 2012 at 11:05 pm |
  20. willrand

    My family and I traveled to Lycia, Turkey. We stood at St. Nicolas' alter and saw his dwelling. It was profound.

    WR

    December 23, 2012 at 6:59 pm |
    • Al

      I traveled to Graceland and stood next to Elvis's grave.

      December 23, 2012 at 10:18 pm |
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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.