The Search for the Historical Santa Claus

by Dave Schuler on December 6, 2012

Charlotte Allen outlines the case that Nicholas of Myra, the ancient bishop better known as St. Nicholas on whom Santa Claus is based, actually existed:

Nicholas of Myra is believed to have been born around 270 A.D. and died in 343. Unlike other church fathers, he left no writings, and the first mention of him dates from only the sixth century. In 325 he supposedly attended the Council of Nicaea, the gathering of churchmen that affirmed the divinity of Christ. There, according to legend, Nicholas was briefly imprisoned for slugging the heretic Arius in a fit of righteous rage. But the earliest lists of attendees don’t mention a “Nicholas,” and many historians of Christianity have concluded the saint never existed.

Mr. English nonetheless builds a convincing case that there really was a St. Nicholas. Around the middle of the fourth century, he points out, the name “Nicholas” (a combination of the Greek words for “victory” and “people”), hitherto virtually unknown in public records and ledgers and on tombstone inscriptions, suddenly became popular in Asia Minor and elsewhere. A still-extant tomb at Myra (modern Demre), a Mediterranean coastal town in southwestern Turkey, dates archaeologically to the right period. When the Seljuk Turks, who were Muslims, swept through western Asia Minor in 1087, Italian sailors transported the bones that were in the tomb to Bari, on the heel of Italy, where they are venerated to this day. The bones seem never to have been carbon-dated, but imaging tests conducted in 2004 revealed that they belonged to an elderly man who had suffered a broken jaw—perhaps as a result of that scuffle with Arius, or torture in the vicious persecution of Christians in the Roman Empire during the early fourth century.

If he didn’t actually exist, he should have.

{ 9 comments… read them below or add one }

Janis Gore December 6, 2012 at 10:24 am

Old Nick is also the devil.

Dave Schuler December 6, 2012 at 10:32 am

No one knows for sure how the devil started being called “Old Nick” but there are attestations going back to the 17th century. That’s roughly the same time as “nick” began being used in the sense of cheat or steal so it may be related.

TastyBits December 6, 2012 at 11:14 am

The German or Dutch Santa Claus has a partner. I think his pal takes care of the naughty list, but I am not sure if he is evil. He could be a Loki or Puck figure.

Janis Gore December 6, 2012 at 11:21 am

We could do with a little less Puckishness, if you ask me.

Dave Schuler December 6, 2012 at 12:05 pm

The German or Dutch Santa Claus has a partner.

Sure. Black Peter or Zwarte Pieten. The origins of that character are 19th century and he began as an actual imp that St. Nicholas, in token of his having conquered the devil, led about in shackles. Later he was depicted as a Moorish page.

Throughout the 20th century Zwarte Pieten gradually became a more positive character. Lately he’s been, er, de-emphasized a bit for reasons of political correctness.

Janis Gore December 6, 2012 at 12:22 pm

The Bible as we know it is unkind to women.

Janis Gore December 6, 2012 at 12:28 pm

I accredit that to the Essenes.

They were an ascetic cult in the godawful desert of Judea. It’s harsh land. No place for family.

Janis Gore December 6, 2012 at 12:31 pm

Herod retreated to Masada, by legend. I have been to Masada. It’s a pretty damned high bluff.

The Romans built an earth ramp.

Janis Gore December 6, 2012 at 12:32 pm

The Masadans threw stones.

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