It’s no secret that Santa Claus is a fictional evolution of the Christian Saint Nicholas, a man born in 280 AD who became the Bishop of Myra, a region located in modern day Turkey. Accounts of Saint Nicholas show him to be a devout man, a man that stuck to his convictions throughout persecution, and a far cry from a jolly fat guy in a red suit.
So where is the connection? Saint Nicholas was known for two things that can be directly traced to modern day Santa: he was the patron saint of children, and a giver of gifts.
Saint Nicholas story starts with his kindness to three young women. The girls were sisters from a poor family on the brink of starvation, and wholly unable to provide a marriage dowry to secure their futures. Their father was too proud to accept charity, and instead had vowed to sell each of the girls into prostitution the minute they came of age.
Saint Nicholas heard of his plans and intervened; the night before each girl came of age he threw a purse full of gold coins through her window and the girls were saved. One version of the story even claimed that the father hid by his last daughters window on the eve before, hoping to catch the purse for himself, but Saint Nicholas learned of the man’s cunning plan and dropped the purse through the chimney instead, where it landed in the stockings the young girl had hung out to dry.
Another story of Saint Nicholas tells how he became the patron saint of children: One night three little boys came to the house of a butcher (sometimes innkeeper) looking for some food and a place to spend the night. The butcher welcomed them in, his fake hospitality hiding his nefarious intentions. As the little boys entered, the butcher grabbed his knife and slaughtered them. He then cut them up into small pieces and placed them in a pickling barrel, intending to sell them as ham.
Seven years later Saint Nicholas stopped by the very same spot, and somehow knowing what had transpired, asked to be taken to the pickling barrel. The butcher fled, and St Nicholas made his way over to the barrel. He placed his fingers on the barrel’s edge, and praying to God, brought the three little boys back to life.
The pickling story has been turned into a popular French Christmas carol, La Légende de Saint Nicolas, which can be seen with English subtitles here: La Légende de Saint Nicolas. It has also been suggested as the basis of a strange American tradition of the Christmas pickle where a pickle shaped ornament is hung on the Christmas tree.
In this ritual, the first person to locate the pickle on Christmas morning either gets an extra present or gets to choose which present is opened first. While marketed as an ‘old German tradition’, there is no evidence to support those claims, but there are pickles aplenty on Amazon.com if you are looking for a new tradition to add to your Christmas repertoire.
As for us, we will probably just stick to getting pickled the old-fashioned way…
Title picture credit: Saint Nicholas Resuscitating Three Youths. Attributed to Jean Pochore.