Sinterklaas, Santeclaus, Santa Claus
by Metropolitan Moses of Toronto
There was a man living in Patara who was once wealthy and illustrious and then became impoverished and scorned by those who had regarded him highly. The man could not cope with his poverty and planned on turning his home into a house of ill repute, forcing his three young daughters into a life of shame.
Saint Nicholas learned of the man’s foul scheme by divine revelation and, inspired by God by night he secretly threw a purse of gold into the house through a window and fled. The man thanked God and used the money to furnish the dowry for the eldest daughter, and she was married. Saint Nicholas heard of this and decided to provide for his second daughter. The man was overwhelmed by this benefaction and prayed to God that He show him who his benefactor was. While Saint Nicholas threw in a third bag the man was waiting and ran after him. Recognizing the virtuous priest, he fell at his feet and thanked him for delivering him from the plots of the devil. But the saint told him not to tell anyone of his benefactions as long as he lived.
There are many traditional icons containing events from the life of Saint Nicholas that include this scene. This benefaction of Saint Nicholas was a favorite theme for Medieval Italian painters. There is one such painting found in the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York. One can see on one part of the canvass the greatly dejected family and elsewhere Saint Nicholas climbing up to throw the bag of gold through a small window.
By a special revelation of God, Saint Nicholas was chosen to become the Archbishop of Myra of Lycia (found in present-day Turkey). He confessed Christ and was imprisoned during the persecutions of the pagan Emperor Diocletian. The persecutions ended and after being released, his life was filled with efforts to defend the poor and downtrodden, distribute alms and guide his spiritual flock in love. In Russia, believers refer to him as “the friend of the people.”
Yet, the love filled Saint Nicholas had a burning love for the truth. (He had already suffered for the truth during the First Ecumenical Council while Arius was expounding his blasphemous teachings, Saint Nicholas was filled with a holy zeal like a second Elias and struck Arius in the mouth. No one knew exactly what to do with Saint Nicholas, for it was a Roman law that anyone who struck another person in the presence of the Emperor was to be put to death.
Additionally, there were Apostolic Canons that decreed that a hierarch who hit someone was to be removed from his office. That night some of the worthy bishops saw a vision wherein Saint Nicholas was handed the gospel by Christ and the bishop’s omophorion by the Holy Theotokos, thus demonstrating that he struck Arius not from passion, but he was inspired by the Holy Spirit. Thus Saint Nicholas was reinstated with honor.
There is an ancient hymn that gives witness to these events:
The truth of things has revealed thee to thy flock* as a rule of faith, an icon of meekness, and a teacher of temperance; / for this cause thou has achieved the heights by humility,* riches by poverty./ O Father and hierarch Nicholas,* intercede with Christ our God that our souls be saved.
During his life he calmed storms at sea by his prayers and delivered those in danger. For this reason he was a patron of seafarers, sailors and merchants. After his repose the Church set December 6th for his feast day. Veneration towards St. Nicholas spread rapidly throughout the Mediterranean and eventually to coastal towns along the Atlantic and the North Sea. In the 12th and 13th centuries, Holland built no fewer than 23 churches dedicated to Saint Nicholas, many of which are still standing. Amsterdam adopted Saint Nicholas as its patron saint and there are more than four hundred churches dedicated to Saint Nicholas in England.
The Feast of Saint Nicholas is an annual event which has been celebrated by the Dutch, Flemish and Germans for centuries. Saint Nicholas’ Feast Day is observed in most Roman Catholic countries primarily as a feast for small children. But it is only in the Low Countries–especially in the Netherlands–that the eve of his feast day (December 5th) is celebrated nationwide by young and old, and now, alas, without any particular religious overtones.
How did Americans further transform the bishop saint into a chubby gift-giver from the North Pole? A Troy, N.Y., newspaper in 1823 published an anonymous poem entitled A Visit From St. Nicholas[T’was the night before Christmas/ when all through the house…]. Twenty-two years later this poem was attributed to Clement More. The poem depicts the hierarch from Myra not as a saint, but as a ‘jolly old elf,’ small enough to fit down a chimney. It is thought that More was inspired by Washington Irving who, in 1809, wrote a satire of the customs of New York’s Dutch population titled,Knickerbocker History. Later in 1821 Irving wrote a Christmas poem called The Children’s Friend. The poem, written for young people, drew from the same Dutch traditions regarding Saint Nicholas, but also added some mythologies to the story referring to him as “Santeclaus” and mentioning for the first time a sleigh and reindeer.
Old Santeclaus with much delight.
His reindeer drives this frosty night.
O’er chimney tops, and tracks of snow.
To bring his yearly gifts to you…
Later Thomas Nast in the 1860’s depicted “Santeclaus” as a very large man who could never fit in a domestic chimney and Coca-Cola imitated this image in the early 1900’s. Next, Montgomery Ward added Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer (an Ugly Duckling story retold for marketing purposes) to his sleigh.
Thus even from the 1800’s, the story of Saint Nicholas was distorted and now through commercialism even the “reason for the Christmas Season,” that is, the Birth of Christ, has been set aside. When people exchange gifts or show kindness to the poor during this season, most of our superstitious society does not want to understand that it is operating on the fumes of a forgotten Christianity. Yet, even when we see the mythical “Santeclaus,” we can call to mind the Christian virtues of love, mercy, and generosity that shown forth in Saint Nicholas “the victory of the people.”