Santa's Whiskers

The Feast of St. Nicholas, by Dutch painter Jan Steen, painted 1665-1668.
Russian icon depicting St. Nicholas with scenes from his life. Late 1400's or early 1500's.

270-343 A.D.

Saint Nicholas Day

Unlike the seasonal focused festivals of Winter Solstice, Saturnalia and Yule, St. Nicholas’s day is an annual mid-winter Christian festival honoring the birth of Nicholas, the bishop of Myra.

Nicholas (also called Nikolaos) was a real life 4th century Greek bishop of Myra (part of modern day Turkey). He was the only son of wealthy parents. They died in an epidemic while Nicholas was still young, and he was subsequently raised by his uncle, also named Nicholas, who was the bishop of Patara. Uncle Nicholas schooled the young boy in the ways of the church and later ordained him a priest.

In 325 B.C. Nicholas of Myra was one of the many bishops to answer the request of Constantine and appeared at the First Council of Nicaea. There he was a staunch defender of the Orthodox Christian position and one of the bishops who signed the Nicene Creed.

He had a reputation for secret gift giving, such as putting coins in the shoes of those who left them out for him. One of the most famous stories that grew up around him was that of the dowry for the three virgins. According to legend, a poor man had three daughters but could not afford a proper dowry for them. This meant that they would remain unmarried and probably, in absence of any other possible employment, would have to become prostitutes. Hearing of the girls' plight, Nicholas decided to help them, but being too modest to help the family in public (or to save them the humiliation of accepting charity), he went to the house under the cover of night each time a daughter came of age and threw a purse filled with gold coins through the window opening into the house. As the third daughter came of age Nicholas dropped the bag of coins down the chimney instead. The daughter had washed her stockings that evening and hung them over the embers to dry, and the bag of gold fell into the stocking. And so he became the patron saint of children.

After his death, Nicholas’s reputation grew and his tomb became a popular and major place of pilgrimage. Because of the many wars and attacks in the region, some Christians were concerned that access to the tomb might become difficult. In the spring of 1087 sailors from Bari seized part of the remains of the saint from his burial church in Myra and delivered them to Bari on May 9, 1087. The rest of the remains were collected by Venetian sailors during the first crusade (1096-1099) and brought to Venice, in northern Italy, where a church to St. Nicholas, the patron of sailors, was built.

He was a Greek bishop, who lived in Myra (Turkey). Half of his relics were transported to Venice in Northern Italy, the other half to Bari in southeastern Italy (Bari later came under Spanish rule). It’s not surprising his popularity spread throughout Europe.

By 450 A.D. churches in Asia Minor and Greece were being named in honor of Nicholas. By 800 A.D. he was officially recognized as a saint by the Eastern Catholic Church. By the end of the 1400’s St. Nicholas was the third most beloved religious figure, after Jesus and Mary, and there were more than 2,000 chapels and monasteries named after him.

The Sinterklaasfeest (St. Nicholas feast) arose during the Middle Ages (400 – 1400 A.D.) Gifting was an important part of the celebration and traditionally gifts were exchanged on the even of December 5, and feasting on the day of December 6. Good and bad played an important role in the feast, with good being rewarded and bad being punished. The feast was both an occasion to help the poor, by putting money in their shoes (which evolved into putting presents in children’s shoes), and a wild feast that often led to costumes, a “topsy-turvy” overturning of daily roles and mass public drunkenness.