The Magazine

Jolly Old St. Nick

His generosity and wonderworking were fabled in Christendom.

Dec 3, 2012, Vol. 18, No. 12 • By DAWN EDEN
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Legends surrounding the life of Nicholas of Myra rank among the most popular stories of the early Church—and for good reason. He slapped heretics and gave gifts to children. What more could you want of a saint?

However, according to Adam C. English, hagiographers over the centuries have toyed around quite a bit with the story of Santa Claus’s namesake. While the legends aren’t entirely ho-ho-hokum, the Myra bishop is often confused with another saint, Nicholas of Sion. With this volume, English—a Baptist minister and Campbell University professor of religion—sets out to distinguish between two lives that have become as tangled as a pile of used Christmas tree lights. 

English’s quest for the historical Nicholas, who lived from about
270 a. d. through the early fourth century, is not without potential pitfalls. The author likens his task to that of those who, in the early 1500s, were charged with cleaning a mosaic of St. Nicholas that had been fished out of the sea. The tiles comprising the saint’s forehead and halo had become encrusted with mussels.

When the mussels were peeled back, some of the mosaic tiles popped off, and legend has it that the icon bled from the forehead during the procedure. Reconstructing the life of Nicholas is like trying to clean that icon. .  .  . The barnacles of legend, myth and exaggeration that have cemented themselves to the historical facts must be pried away. And yet, it should be kept in mind that the folkloric barnacles cannot be detached without permanently scarring—or even losing—the person. They are too tightly joined.

Those “folkloric barnacles” are especially valuable to English because they accrued during “the grandest and most sweeping moment in church history: the conversion of the Roman Empire to Christianity. .  .  . All the growing pangs of this conversion process manifested themselves in the life of Nicholas.” Such a sweeping assertion raises the reader’s hopes to the level of a child awakening on Christmas morning. What is actually under the tree, however, is not quite as dazzling as the wrapping implies. 

English is a capable storyteller, weaving biographical information about his subject (mostly drawn from the saint’s earliest vita, Michael the Archimandrite’s Life of Saint Nicholas) with rich historical details about his religious and sociological milieu. Most enjoyable are his forays into literary history, as he traces the development of popular legends to show how, centuries before the modern figure of Santa Claus emerged in 20th-century Coca-Cola ads, the saint’s generosity and wonderworking were fabled throughout the Christian world. Nicholas’s renown for rescuing young people, as when he provided dowries for three sisters to prevent their being sold into prostitution, led to his becoming incorporated into folk narratives. One French medieval ballad features him as the hero of a gruesome Hansel and Gretel-like tale in which he resurrects three boys who were sliced, diced, and pickled by an evil innkeeper. (Think of that the next time Santa Claus brings a mincemeat pie.)

The problem is that English would have us see his subject as a kind of Zelig—an “amorphous, Protean character .  .  . [who] can assume any shape.” He agrees with William Bennett’s claim that Nicholas is “every-saint, one for all people and all causes.” Yet the historical evidence he amasses seems to show the opposite: Nicholas of Myra is not “for all people and all causes” but for Christ and the church, and against all forms of paganism, schism, and heresy. 

Granted, Nicholas is never seen resorting to violence against persons. Unlike the legend of his slapping the heretic Arius at the Council of Nicaea, English shows that on the only occasion when history records Nicholas encountering a heretic (a Marcionite prelate named Theognis), he won over his opponent through “a string of letters .  .  . patiently persuading him of what was right.” We are likewise told that the saint’s campaign against paganism was free of bloodshed: Rather than taking up “visible weapons,” he “armed himself with hope and firm confidence.” 

Even so, Nicholas was no model of relativistic tolerance. As English observes, the record shows he “not only spoke against the gods and goddesses, he also destroyed their temples and sacred groves with his own hands.” Not for nothing do medieval frescoes depict him “red in the face with holy anger, toppling temple columns with his bare hands and then swinging an axe into the base of a sacred cypress.” The real-life Santa may indeed have had rosy cheeks; but with him around, no tannenbaum was safe.