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.

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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. EX catholic

    Sure, sure, whatever you say Mr. English!! Any excuse is good enough for a few more $$$ in the pockets of those who already belong to the haves' vs. the have not. The funny thing is that while idolaters as they are, Roman-Catholics in their paintings at least, they portray Jesus as Young and physically fit; While the American version of Santa Claus is fat, morbidly obese unfit and old. A mere coincidence or what?

    December 25, 2012 at 2:47 pm |
  2. Brampt

    The Bible does not give the date of Jesus’ birth, nor does it say that we should celebrate his birthday. As McClintock and Strong’s Cyclopedia states: “The observance of Christmas is not of divine appointment, nor is it of NT [New Testament] origin.”

    Instead, an examination of the history of Christmas exposes its roots in pagan religious rites. The Bible shows that we offend God if we try to worship him in a way that he does not approve of.—Exodus 32:5-7.

    History of Christmas customs

    Celebrating Jesus’ birthday: “The early Christians did not celebrate [Jesus’] birth because they considered the celebration of anyone’s birth to be a pagan custom.”—The World Book Encyclopedia.

    December 25: There is no proof that Jesus was born on that date. Church leaders likely chose this date to coincide with pagan festivals held on or around the winter solstice.

    Gift-giving, feasting, partying: The Encyclopedia Americana says: “Saturnalia, a Roman feast celebrated in mid-December, provided the model for many of the merry-making customs of Christmas. From this celebration, for example, were derived the elaborate feasting, the giving of gifts, and the burning of candles.” The Encyclopædia Britannica notes that “all work and business were suspended” during Saturnalia.

    Christmas lights: According to The Encyclopedia of Religion, Europeans decorated their homes “with lights and evergreens of all kinds” to celebrate the winter solstice and to combat evil spirits.
    Mistletoe, holly: “The Druids ascribed magical properties to the mistletoe in particular. The evergreen holly was worshiped as a promise of the sun’s return.”—The Encyclopedia Americana.

    Christmas tree: “Tree worship, common among the pagan Europeans, survived after their conversion to Christianity.” One of the ways in which tree worship survived is in the custom of “placing a Yule tree at an entrance or inside the house in the midwinter holidays.”—Encyclopædia Britannica.

    December 25, 2012 at 11:45 am |
  3. Seyedibar

    The tales of St. Nick are complete fiction, like most Christian fables, and steals from other "pagan" mythos to deconstruct their holidays. Leaving gifts under a tree on Dec 25th to a virgin-born god originated over 800 years BCE during the reign of Semiramis who claimed her own son was a virgin-birth. The domain of Semiramis included the lands that St Nick eventually presided over as bishop, so it's no shock that his church would want to use this local heroes' death to publicly replace the holiday of their enemy religions. This particular story in the article is hilarious because the Greeks and Turks did not even develop chimneys until the early 900s CE.

    December 25, 2012 at 11:35 am |
  4. Frank W. Kresen

    Because I never proofread my own writing as meticulously as I proofread paid assignments, my first comment on the "My Take" article contained a typo, too: "causal" instead of "casual."

    But I really wish this site would post my reply to Bart Fargo's comment on my initial post. It sums up what I think about people like him.

    December 25, 2012 at 11:14 am |
  5. niknak

    Merry Mythmas everyone!

    December 25, 2012 at 8:31 am |
  6. Niko

    Ignorance breeds rumors and mysticism. There is some truth to every myth so take a few steps back so as to be enlightened so you will not fall prey to barbarism. Chimneys were in existence in early Byzantium especially in Asia Minor as people built them to heat their homes. If you do not believe me take a look at Agia Sophia (largest enclosed space for over 800 years) and you will know that the Byzantines did not only have the technology to build chimneys but they also came up with GREEK FIRE. This civilations was the continuation of the Greek and Roman Empire that lasted for over a 1000 years. After the fall of Constantinople, most of the Greek scholar refugees from the University of Constantinople migrated to Venice to help spark the Renaisance Movement.

    December 24, 2012 at 10:45 pm |
  7. Joe


    December 24, 2012 at 12:04 pm |
  8. Frank W. Kresen

    I have made my living for 30 years as a proofreader and editor.

    Who would I talk to about making my services available to CNN so that some of the more egregious errors in CNN stories are caught and corrected before the stories are posted online?

    I'm serious. I'm not just making a causal, snarky comment here.

    Readers Terry Szall and "James" were sharp enough to catch "vile/vial." But "James's" comment contained a spelling error of its own - "myrr."

    But did anyone read the caption/cutline under the picture at the top of the article? Santa "Clause."

    Cutlines are more likely provided by CNN staff than by the writers of the article.

    I have been meaning to write a serious business proposal about proofreading to CNN Online for a long, long time now, and I'm not sure why the errors in this particular article pushed me over the top into doing it.

    I know that online articles have to be posted very quickly, and so it's understandable that, in their haste to meet around-the clock, 24/7 ongoing deadlines, some editors might miss some of even the most egregious errors.

    But, there must be a way to work something out with a stand-by freelancer/outsource like me.

    I know there wouldn't be time for one person to read each and every article before it is posted on CNN every day.

    But if you could find enough skilled outsource proofreaders, each could be assigned articles within certain parameters that they would be responsible for - you know, a compartmentalization/breakdown along the lines of the different categories that you already use.

    If you gave my proposal even a half-hearted consideration, I would truly appreciate it.

    Even if you replied and told me only who to contact for a serious discussion about this, my proofreading service (Proof Positive), CNN's readership, and CNN's reputation might all benefit from it.

    Sincerely, respectfully, and seriously,

    Frank W. Kresen
    Proof Positive

    December 24, 2012 at 11:18 am |
    • Joe

      I wrote a similar message several months ago to a well-known columnist at another site. Sloppy writing and editing are, unfortunately, becoming commonplace. There is no expectation of being "caught" at this, as the audience on the whole is so poorly educated that spelling and grammar errors are seldom noticed; and even if they are noticed, there is a general sense of inevitablility and ennui about such things. Only someone who has been educated precisely in the area of proper use of the English language will find it curious and insulting that someone who is being paid to write does not create a product that is flawless or even merely acceptable.

      December 24, 2012 at 11:31 am |
    • Reality

      From Amazon.com

      The Santa Clause: 3 Movie Collection Starring Tim Allen, Judge Reinhold, Spencer Breslin, et al. (Oct 7, 2008)
      $39.99 $24.99DVD


      December 24, 2012 at 11:56 am |
    • Bart Fargo

      Wow, I feel a squeeze from the force field of anal retention surrounding your post. When will your generation realize that proofreading web content is like trying to tidy up a landfill? Soldier on, Sisyphus.

      December 24, 2012 at 12:44 pm |
    • GodFreeNow

      Great post. I was in Atlanta when CNN's decline began in the late 90s. It happened when they merged with AOL. Many friends who were respected content providers lost their jobs and CNN became just another ad-driven, revenue-hungry corporation. It's been a sad, slow decline ever since.

      December 24, 2012 at 3:59 pm |
    • Akira

      The name of the movie spelled it that way for a reason: it was a clause in a contract Tim Allen had to sign to be Santa Claus in the first place.

      December 24, 2012 at 6:32 pm |
    • Akira

      We'll, my post was fraught with grammatical errors; my apologies to Mr. Kresen.

      December 24, 2012 at 6:41 pm |
    • Reality

      BecausE is the reason for Santa ClausE and the movie gave it credence 🙂

      December 24, 2012 at 11:51 pm |
    • Niko

      Perhaps many could have been educated, and therefor, enlightened (Agia Sophia) at the Byzantine University of Constantinople. Much of the scholarly literature had been looted thanks to the 4th Crusade and the fall of Constantinople in 1453. Most of the professors refugee professors at this university fled to Venice and other parts of Western Europe, which helped spark the Renaisance movement (rebirth of Greek culture). The outlining messaage is there if any one bothers to read the content instead of putting every article under a microscope.
      We can all be englightened at Agia Sophia,which stood as man's accomplishments for over 800 years. Where did these Greeks get the technology to build such a cathedral? Unlike the West (Dark Ages),for one thing it was an advanced civilization.

      December 25, 2012 at 8:16 am |
    • Niko

      I have read the article and there are hardly any grammatical errors. With this in mind, the article contains both accuracy and fluency. Perhaps some of us ought to learn the difference between revising and editing.

      December 25, 2012 at 8:21 am |
  9. How Sad

    How sad that so many people feel the need to post negative and mean comments. I certainly belive in freedom of speech, but there are times when you have to look at what you wrote and decide if that's really the impression you want people to have of you – is that really the kind of person you want to be? Maybe you wouldn't feel so negative if you would stop and think about maybe deleting mean comments instead of posting them.

    December 24, 2012 at 11:00 am |
    • Seyedibar

      I only disregard people's feelings when religion is involved. Too many people dance lightly around the insecurities of people's retarded beliefs. Only the witless can have their feelings hurt by truth.

      December 24, 2012 at 11:08 am |
    • Kev

      @Seyedibar, And a Merry Christmas to you too.

      December 24, 2012 at 11:22 am |
    • ogre12

      Seyedibar you are a sad individual. I am so sorry that HE has not called you by name like he has so many others.

      December 24, 2012 at 1:23 pm |
  10. GF


    there are more sightings of bigfoot in the 21st century than all of the books on jesus combined. so what do you have to say to that? childre believe in santa as equally as they believe in god. all religion is a scam

    December 24, 2012 at 10:54 am |
  11. Seyedibar

    Sorry, but most historians agree that the tales of Saint Nick and the daughters is pure myth, just like the tales of St Nick's religion. The giftgiver dropping bags through the chimney is a much older myth borrowed from early Siberian culture (not to mention that chimneys did not come into use in Europe until 900 years later). In truth, he was nothing more than a very wealthy greek bishop with xenophobic politics who was turned into a local supernatural hero after his death. The only lesson here is this: don't believe every folktale you read just because the word GOD is in there somewhere.

    December 24, 2012 at 10:46 am |
    • Niko

      Hope you have a Merry Christmas and Happy New Year. As the GREEKS say, "Prota Igia", which means first good health above all. The Greeks and Romans of Byzantium did indeed have chimneys as it was an advance civilization. Read about Agia Sophia, the cathedral and you will be englishtened about Byzantine History (Sophia literally means to be enlightened).

      December 24, 2012 at 10:57 pm |
  12. Shee

    Beautiful article!

    December 24, 2012 at 10:07 am |
  13. John P. Tarver

    We live in a world where Santa and one horned goats are real, but the fantasy of evolution as a means to species is still alive in the minds of fools.

    December 24, 2012 at 10:04 am |
    • Seyedibar

      You don't believe in evolution, a proven and observable natural phenomena, but you will believe a two-thousand year old factually incorrect folktale with no basis in real history. I'm going to just assume by your level of reading comprehension that you're a christian.

      December 24, 2012 at 10:49 am |
  14. Bart Fargo

    The real meaning behind Santa is that he is a Communist. Reasons: he is a carbon copy of Karl Marx, he always wears a red military suit and black army boots, runs a commune of elves at the North Pole, distributes resources (presents) for free based on abstract notions of a child's "goodness" and not based on earning through hard work or talent, and to top it all off he is tracked intensively by NORAD.

    December 24, 2012 at 9:27 am |
  15. Terry Szall

    Too bad Mr. English can't spell the word vial.

    December 24, 2012 at 9:14 am |
    • james

      maybe the myrr was vile but then how much was in the vial to make it vile?

      December 24, 2012 at 9:52 am |
    • OTOH

      "Too bad Mr. English can't spell the word vial"

      I guess he just has no frankin' sense.

      December 24, 2012 at 10:59 am |
    • GodFreeNow

      These comments are gold!

      December 24, 2012 at 4:01 pm |
  16. cira22

    The modern day Santa also has origins in Paganism. it is those Pagan Myths, blended with the real St Nick that give us our modern day Santa. "The god Odin's role during the Yuletide period has been theorized as having influenced concepts of St. Nicholas in a variety of facets, including his long white beard and his gray horse for nightly rides (see Odin's horse Sleipnir), which was traded for reindeer in North America.[14] Margaret Baker comments that "The appearance of Santa Claus or Father Christmas, whose day is 25th of December, owes much to Odin, the old blue-hooded, cloaked, white-bearded Giftbringer of the north, who rode the midwinter sky on his eight-footed steed Sleipnir, visiting his people with gifts. […] Odin, transformed into Father Christmas, then Santa Claus, prospered with St Nicholas and the Christchild became a leading player on the Christmas stage."

    December 24, 2012 at 8:47 am |
  17. Caz in BOS

    As an atheist, what I find ironic about the myths associated with this time of year, is that the ONLY real person among all of them, was Santa Claus.

    December 24, 2012 at 8:24 am |
    • Aaron

      Jesus was a historical person (regardless of if you think he was the Son of God). The vast majority of respectable historians won't disputes this because there are more records for the life of Jesus then almost any other person 2000 years ago with the exception of the Roman Emperors of the time. If you don't hold the evidence for the historical person of Jesus as enough then you should strike 98% of BCE history since most of it comes from far fewer sources. PS- the tomb of Jesus was empty after the Romans crucified him- another fact of history. What you think happened is up to you, but don't try to change history because you don't agree with how people have interpreted it.

      December 24, 2012 at 10:03 am |
    • bud

      Never read the history written by Josepheus? Noted historian of his time. There's more than one REAL person in the stories. Since you say you're an atheist, I can't wish you a Merry Christmas so just have a nice day.

      December 24, 2012 at 10:20 am |
    • 0G-No gods, ghosts, goblins or ghouls

      Josephus did not live in jesus' time and at least some of the writings attributed to him are believed to be forgeries.

      December 24, 2012 at 10:23 am |
    • fred

      OG-no gods
      You are really off base on this one. There are those that to this day claim we never went to the moon that is the category you have now put yourself into. All reputable historians agree to the existence of Jesus and history of Jesus as recorded through 100AD.
      You are welcome to contest belief or that which requires faith. It would be a good start if you simply applied the same standards to the authoritative acceptance of the history of Jesus as you do to any other person of antiquity.

      December 24, 2012 at 10:32 am |
    • 0G-No gods, ghosts, goblins or ghouls

      fred,where did I claim jesus did not exist as an historical figure? And it is trivial, even for a believer idiot such as yourself, to learn that not everything Josephus wrote is universally considered to be 100% true. As usual, you let your need for the jesus myth to be true get in the way of reading for comprehension.

      December 24, 2012 at 10:45 am |
    • fred

      OG-no gods
      The tread was as to the historicity of Jesus and your comment questioning Josephus was again the typical atheist ploy.
      What I do not understand about atheists is they completely mimic Lucifer yet do not realize it. Christians model their lives after Christ and whether you believe or not it is still a good way to live.
      Just how is the atheist that models Lucifer of any positive value? I assume you have read the Bible and know the story of Adam and Eve. The enticement to reject God was “did God really say that” which stirred doubt as you do. The kingpin was “you could be wise like God” and this is what atheists do as they hang onto their professed supremacy of knowledge over sheep herders.
      You are part of the evil that is stirring the anti Christian move. In schools and work Christians are under attack. It will not be long until the verbal and emotional abuse turns violent. Hitler did this to the Jews and atheists are doing it to the Christian.
      Ti-t for tat I suppose since the atheist was spit upon as a godless evil by twisted believers. It is best you are at least aware of the force that pulls your strings because it is the same force that made Christians do evil against the atheist and Hitler against the Jew.
      Are you even aware that you model Lucifer?

      December 24, 2012 at 11:13 am |
    • Akira

      Fred, no matter how much you may like to attack atheists, and you are attacking 0G, Josephus was not a contemporary of Jesus, being as he was born after Jesus died.
      There is some controversy surrounding Josephus' writings; if you don't like that, oh well.
      Look up the definition of "contemporary".
      Those are the writings I'm interested in...things about Jesus that was written during the time he lived, not years after he died.

      December 24, 2012 at 6:27 pm |
    • RickV

      Akira, you will never find what you seek. None of the Gospels were written until well after the Resurrection. Paul only met the Risen Christ, not while he lived. John was a very old man before he ever wrote anything you can find in the Bible. The early church heard stories of Jesus' life from those who knew Him, as they began to die, they saw the need to write down what was known.

      December 25, 2012 at 3:02 pm |
  18. Saraswati

    A nice story, true or not.

    December 24, 2012 at 7:06 am |
    • 0G-No gods, ghosts, goblins or ghouls

      Or simply more bullsh!t to amuse and confuse the sheep. ..

      December 24, 2012 at 8:56 am |
  19. KEVIN

    Beautiful article. What this bishop (St. Nick) did is so simplistic and palatable and down to earth it must be true. Anyone unselfish could have done this. Too cool!! There really is a Santa Claus

    December 24, 2012 at 6:46 am |
  20. Paul Wright

    wow!!! I was just tellig my wife we should help a needy family this year however was struggling with the monitary cost to me. I now realize the true meaning of the giving spirt is helping those who are in need. I now know what I should do thank you St. Nick!

    December 24, 2012 at 5:21 am |
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