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You know him, you love him- hey, maybe you fear him, to each their own. But, all irrational fears aside… Santa Claus. The story of St. Nicholas has been reinvented over the centuries, but the basics remain: Happy, frumpy dude that likes sugar. Flying reindeer. Rad crib down north.
Hope that rings a bell. And, you know, if it doesn’t, this will be helpful to you, too.
Now, let’s turn back the clock to the beginnings of this iconic figure of the holiday season.
Who is St. Nicholas?
St. Nicholas, now known as Santa Claus, was a Christian bishop who lived in ancient Turkey. His legend of gift-bringing during Christmas was brought into the new world over the years.
Legend has it- as with the rest of this post- that St. Nicholas was born in 270 AD and died in 343 AD. Both of his parents passed when he was young, so he used his inheritance to help the poor and sick.
In the middle ages, he became one of Europe’s most beloved non-biblical saints. In France and Germany, his name was used in more than 2,000 churches.
A couple of his nicknames were the gift-giver and the WonderWorker.
Nick’s legend traveled to the U.S. through European immigrants. Later, In America, he became known as Santa Claus because of his old Dutch name, Sinterklaas.
What is Known About St. Nick’s Life?
Unfortunately, not much is really known about the story of St. Nicholas or his life.
St. Nicholas was born in Asia Minor and became a bishop of Myra, an old town in Turkey.
Beliefs say that he attended the Council of Nica in 325 AD. The Council of Nica held meetings that produced Nicene Creed, a fundamental statement of the church.
Others don’t believe that Nick attended this Council because his name was not on the attendee list when the cult was most popular.
But, quite honestly, we don’t really know anything for sure when we’re talking about history before the printing press. Thanks, Gutenberg!
What are Legends About St. Nick?
Three Chicks, Zero Dollars
One legend tells of how Nick helped three maidens escape the clutches of despair.
Ooh, I know. Sounds dramatic.
These three girls had just breached the age where it was acceptable to marry them off- which means, like, 13. Romeo and Juliet is shaking in its boots.
So there’s this thing called a dowry, in which the bride’s father pays the groom as a reward for allowing the woman to be married? I guess? It’s super misogynistic and gross, but that’s honestly to be expected.
But, you see, the father of these three young teens was broke. So, no money. And no money meant no dowry, and no dowry meant no marriage.
So instead of any other possible response to this situation, this father sends his daughters into the prostitution business, which is a super fun idea for any thirteen year-old.
That was sarcasm.
When St. Nicholas heard of this, he threw a pack of gold into the father’s house. Because of Nick’s gratitude, he was able to pay for the oldest daughter’s dowry.
Nick did the same with the other daughters, paying off all of their dowries. The third time St. Nick did this, the father was waiting outside, and thanked the bishop sincerely.
Writers believe that this legend is what started the gift-giving tradition at Christmas.
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While some legends happened when Nick was alive, others happened after he passed, just like this next one.
In another tale, three students were sleeping peacefully at an inn. However, leering around the corner was a vile, evil innkeeper, who crept into their rooms in the dead of night and stole their goods.
To keep the story quiet and to tie loose ends, the innkeeper viciously slaughtered the students in their sleep.
When Nicholas saw this, he miraculously put their bodies back together, bringing them back to life.
Murder is Okay™ if it’s Santa
In another story, the deceased saint saw a Christian not paying back his debts to a Jewish moneylender. St. Nicholas killed the Christian in a place where the moneylender could find the debt.
The moneylender was displeased with St. Nick killing the Christian, so Nick brought him back to life. The moneylender, now un-dead, was so impressed that he converted to Christianity. Which, um, is a bit of an… adverse reaction to being murdered and subsequently resurrected.
Because of St. Nicholas’ good deeds- besides the whole murdering for fraud thing- he was becoming very popular all over the world. As the cult of St. Nicholas grew, he gained many different patronages.
St. Nicholas’ Bones
After St. Nicholas passed, his sacred bones were transferred to many different places. However, during one transportation, Italians seized his bones in fear of them being desecrated.
After they were stolen, Bari, the city they were located, became very popular.
How Did St. Nick’s Legend Come to the United States?
During December in 1773 and 1774, European immigrants traveled to the U.S. and shared the legend of St. Nicholas.
Then, a New York newspaper declared that Dutch families came to honor St. Nick’s death on December 6.
In 1894, Josh Pinterd gave out woodcuts with the saint carved in them at a society’s annual meeting. The carving had St. Nicholas standing in front of stockings filled with toys and candy in front of a fireplace.
In 1809, Washington Irving gave Nick more relevancy by referring to him as the Patron of New York, in his book, The History of New York.
As St. Nicholas grew, he was depicted with a blue hat, a red waistcoat, and yellow stockings.
Then, in 1820, Santa began to be commercialized for Christmas shopping.
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