Christmas Past

The fascinating stories behind your favorite Christmas traditions

Backstory — Santa Claus, Part 1: The Life and Legend of Saint Nicholas

image of Saint Nicholas

We’re kicking off the 2016 season with a three-part series about how St. Nicholas became Santa Claus. Most of the episodes this season are for the whole family, but this series is for grownups only, for obvious reasons.

If you think you know St. Nicholas, you may be in for a few surprises when you hear this episode.

Did you know these things about St. Nicholas?

  • Legend says he resurrected three boys who were butchered to death by an evil innkeeper
  • He is said to have cold-cocked a fellow theologian during a heated debate
  • He is the patron saint of pawnbrokers
Image of Saint Nicholas saving the three boys from the evil Innkeeper
Saint Nicholas saving the three boys from the evil Innkeeper

You’ll hear that and much, much more in this episode. I’m joined by Bruce David Forbes, a professor of religious studies and the author of the wonderful book, Christmas: A Candid History.

Music in this episode

Episode transcript

Brian Earl 0:00
This episode of Christmas Past is the first in a three part series about Santa Claus. And even though children love Santa, these episodes are not for them. grownups, please enjoy them on your own. Thanks.

Let’s try a little thought experiment.

Imagine a roomful of people. It’s a good mix of male and female, young and old from all over the world and all walks of life. And your job is to give each of them a sheet of paper and a box of crayons. And you’re going to ask them to perform one simple task and that is to draw a picture of Santa Claus. When everyone’s finished and hand through their drawings, how much variation Do you think you’d see? I don’t mean variation in artistic ability. I mean, variation in what people think Santa looks like, I’d bet good money that almost every picture would depict an old man, he’d have a white beard, a red first suit with white trim, a red hat with a palm palm on the end and black boots and a black belt at the waist. In other words, the image of Santa is pretty universal and standardized. The only things that change are the small details like whether he wears glasses, or smokes a pipe. He is without a doubt one of the most recognized and recognizable figures in the world. But this universal image of a grandfatherly gift giver, dressed in red and riding a magic sleigh, that’s all relatively new, it takes up only about 10% of the total history of his legend. So how exactly did St. Nicholas become Santa Claus, or Kris Kringle? And why does he have so many names anyway? Well, that’s a story 1700 years in the making, and one that may not be finished yet. A story I’ll tell here in three acts. It’s a blurry mixture of fact and legend, a tale of miracles and murder, of tomb raiders and torture of the Protestant Reformation, poetic license, media proliferation, corporate branding, and Dutch people smoking pipes. I’m Brian Earl, this is Christmas past.

Act One, the Life and Legend of St. Nicholas. Let’s start with the basics. St. Nicholas was a real person, and he’s recognized as a saint in the Roman Catholic Church. Beyond that, there’s not much we can say for sure. Yeah,

Bruce David Forbes 2:31
the first thing to say is that it’s really hard to tell what’s historical and what’s legend.

Brian Earl 2:36
Bruce David Forbes is a professor of Religious Studies at Morningside College in Sioux City, Iowa. And he’s the author of the book Christmas, a candid history.

Bruce David Forbes 2:44
I mean, what we really know historically is the century meaning the three hundreds that he lived in what’s now Turkey, and that apparently he became a bishop. And then there are a lot of other standard things that are said about his story, but it’s just unclear how much of it is historical and how much is legend. It is said that he attended the Nicene council the Council of Nicea, which in the history of Christianity is one of the most important councils, but we really don’t know if it happened.

Brian Earl 3:14
The first nicean Council was when the Emperor Constantine called a conference of all the bishops to resolve important points on theological questions. And one of the legends within a legend has it that at the Council, one of the other attendees, a man named Aurelius got into a heated argument with Nicholas arias promoted an idea that others considered heretical. It angered Nicholas so much that he punched aureus out right there on the floor of the council with Emperor Constantine watching. Apparently, he had to spend the night in jail as a result. Now remember, this is a guy who knows if you’ve been naughty or nice. Constantine was the first Christian Roman Emperor, the rulers who came before him ordered for the persecution of Christians. And several accounts say that Nicholas was imprisoned and tortured during that time, maybe for as long as three years. And other part of his legend is that he was born to wealthy parents who died from the plague when he was young.

Bruce David Forbes 4:09
He was the only child of a wealthy family. And one of his pledges to himself was to give away all his money before he died, there are lots of great legends but the one most common is a good symbol of what he came to represent. And that is the story of really a widow, the father, who had three daughters, and he tells them in tears that because he has no money, he can’t provide hours for them to get married. They probably will not be able to get married. So they, they faced a future of slavery or worse, and St. Nicholas overhears this. And so in the dead of night comes by one night and drops a bag of gold to the window, which allows one daughter to have a dowry she can get married, another night and other bag of gold on the

Brian Earl 4:59
third night. waits up to see who’s been dropping gold into the house, he discovers Nicholas. But Nicholas swears the father to secrecy, saying that all the credit should go to God and not him. By the way, there are later revisions of the story that say he threw the money down the chimney. But this is impossible because houses didn’t have chimneys back then. And another variation has the money landing in a stocking that was hanging out to dry. Sound familiar? Let’s take a step back. These days, we associate St. Nicholas mainly with his generosity. But as Professor forts tells it, there are three distinct roles that he’s played.

Bruce David Forbes 5:39
One is that he’s a protector, kind of a guardian angel. Second, he becomes a disciplinarian, trying to find out if children are naughty or nice. And third, he’s a generous gift giver. And I think those three aspects are, are involved all the way through this history from the beginnings of St. Nicholas to the present, but I think the emphasis changes. And the early part, I think, emphasize Nicholas as a guardian, protecting people.

Brian Earl 6:07
This reputation as a sort of guardian angel and miracle worker is part of how his popularity spread from Eastern to Western Europe. He became the patron saint of seafarers, and there are legends of him rescuing doomed ships and bringing drown sailors back to life. He was also the patron saint of merchants, archers, brewers, pawnbrokers and travelers. And there’s one story about his protection over travelers that sounds like something right out of grimms fairy tales.

Bruce David Forbes 6:35
Yes, it’s not as sweetest story as the other one because it’s kind of grotesque. Yes, but apparently three boys who are sent by their father to get a blessing from Nicholas horrible innkeeper hears that they have money kills them, in its grotesque, most grotesque form, cuts them up, puts them in a salt tub for the curing of meat, St Nicholas learns about what’s happened comes to confront the innkeeper. The most horrible part of some stories is that the innkeeper even tries to serve this meat to Nicolas but Nicolas finds out what happens confronts the innkeeper caused him to repent miraculously heals the boys and in fact, in some versions, not only brings them back to life and brings them home, but with their clothing and the money and everything intact.

Brian Earl 7:23
Believe me, this is just the tip of the iceberg. There are stories of him multiplying stockpiles of grain during a famine, fighting to lower taxes, rescuing condemned men seconds before being beheaded, single handedly destroying the Temple of Artemis. It goes on and on and on. It’s believed that he died on December 6 in the year 343. He was 73 years old. And so December 6, eventually became St. Nicholas day. In the years after his death, his legend and popularity spread and grew across Europe. He became so popular that more than seven centuries later, some Italian merchants got a wild and crazy idea. Now, just to be clear, this one is not a legend. This really happened.

Bruce David Forbes 8:09
Someone had to make a movie about this because it’s exciting in its own way. More or less, you had an Italian community that was on hard times and like the Community Council trying to figure out what can we do to improve our status. And they really needed something that would draw people to the town. But what they needed was a tourist attraction. And in those days, tourist attractions were usually religious. If you had relics of a saint, and people would make pilgrimages there. You could get all kinds of incomes from those that visit, and Baria decided we need relics of the saints. The year

Brian Earl 8:47
was 1087, one group of merchants from the town of Bari and another from Venice apparently got the same idea at the same time, and the race was on which group could make it to Turkey first to steal the bones of St. Nicholas? Well, the group from Bari got there first. And they brought the bones back and built up a silicate around it. It’s still there today.

Bruce David Forbes 9:08
And it was very successful, because it was a port city. And what if this is about the time when the Crusades are going to start and so Crusaders from all over Western Europe, would come down to Italy usually get on a boat to go to the Holy Land and fight. And Bari was the perfect place. So they would go there, ask for a blessing of St. Nicholas and then go off in their crusading fighting.

It was a very successful venture.

Brian Earl 9:36
Around the beginning of the 12th century St. Nicholas is more popular and well known than ever, but at this point, he still has no association with the Christmas celebration, and he’s still a far cry from becoming Santa Claus. But all of that is about to change. I hope you will join me for act two of our story, when we’ll see St. Nicholas celebrations and traditions starting to take shape how a variety of cultures add their own touch to the legend. And how St. Nicholas and his helpers make sure that children keep their behavior on the up and up. Christmas Past is produced in sunny San Mateo, California by yours truly, Brian Earl. Hey, this was the first official episode of Christmas Past. So I want to thank you really and truly for taking the time to listen and taking a chance on a new podcast. I’ve been working on these episodes since the summer, and I’m really excited that it’s finally time to share them with you. If you like what you’ve heard so far, then I hope you’ll subscribe on iTunes or whatever app or service you use to get your podcasts. And if you like Christmas Past, then you should really check out the Christmas docking podcast if you haven’t already. It’s also on iTunes and everywhere else. It’s one of my favorites. And it was really the main inspiration for Christmas past. And I’d like to thank the host Lee Cameron. He was very generous to me with his help and encouragement as I was getting this podcast off the ground. Thank you, Leigh, and Merry Christmas to you and yours. And I’d also like to thank Bruce David Forbes. He’s a great guy and I really enjoyed the time we spent together doing the interview for this show. You’ll hear more from him in the next two episodes. And also starting in the next episode, I’ll be sharing your Christmas memories. So if you have any stories or even just memories about your favorite holiday traditions, I’d love to share them right here on the show. So just record a voice memo on your smartphone and send it to Christmas Past podcast@gmail.com. Try to keep it to about a minute or so. And be sure to say your name and where you’re from. And I’m also on Facebook, Twitter and Instagram sharing all kinds of fun vintage Christmas stuff and Christmas trivia almost every day. Come on by and give me a like or a follow up or just say hi and join the conversation. Search for Christmas Past podcast in all three places and you’ll find me and if you come to Christmas Past podcast.com you’ll find show notes for each episode. They include pictures, recipes, references and info about the music you hear on the show. All that good stuff. Again, that’s Christmaspastpodcast.com

Subscribe, Rate, Review!

Never miss an episode. Subscribe to the show on Apple Podcasts, Google Play, Spotify, or anywhere else you get podcasts. If you need suggestions or help with subscribing, check out the Subscribe page. And if you have a moment, please leave a rating. It helps spread the Christmas cheer to more listeners!

Join the chorus!

With hundreds of five-star reviews, it's no wonder that Christmas Past is one of the top Christmas podcasts ever! Rate and review the show on Apple Podcasts, and I’ll send you a Christmas Past sticker and a handwritten Christmas card to say thanks. Contact me for details.

Celebrate all year round

Keep the Christmas spirit alive throughout the year with monthly updates. Christmas Past's email newsletter is free, non-spammy and full of Christmas news, tips, and musings, all handcrafted by yours truly, Brian Earl. And don't forget to follow Christmas Past on social media.

Follow Christmas Past