The Real Santa Claus Story
Santa Claus will soon be coming to town, bringing gifts to children.
Santa has several aliases, depending on the part of the world you live in. The English call him Father Christmas, the French know him as Père Noël, and Kris Kringle seems be a version of the Christkind, or Christ Child, who leaves treats for good German Lutherans.
In the Netherlands, he arrives in town on a steamboat or horse from Spain. On the night of Dec. 5, Dutch children put their shoes on the hearth – these days near the central heating duct – hoping that he will fill them with sweet rewards rather than a reprimand for poor behavior . The Dutch call him Sinterklaas – which has come into American English as ‘Santa Claus’ – short for Sint Nicolaas or St. Nicholas .
St. Nicholas and Santa Claus are historically the same man. But unlike the jolly figure who purportedly flies on a sleigh from the North Pole, the saint came originally from the balmy Mediterranean coast.
Who was St. Nicholas really?
As a historian of religions who has written books about ancient saints , I caution against reading accounts of saints’ lives as factual history. However, the earliest stories of St. Nicholas seem to correlate with histories and church documents of the period.
He studied to be a priest and spent time in prison for his beliefs. However, after Emperor Constantine legalized Christianity, Nicholas was elected Bishop of Myra.
During his lifetime, he became famous for defending his people against imperial taxes and other forms of oppression. According to the earliest document about Nicholas, from the fifth century, he prevented three loyal generals from unjust execution for treason.
A ninth-century Greek legend claims he revived three scholars who had been murdered and stashed in a pickling tub. He also saved three girls whose poverty-stricken father wanted to sell them into prostitution.
After his death, people believed that Nicholas continued to work miracles. His burial place, below the floor of his church , became a popular destination for pilgrims who begged Nicholas to relay their petitions to God.