Who is this ancestor of Santa, and how did he change over time?
Every December 6, the faithful celebrate St. Nicholas Day in cities all over the world, with the largest ones taking place in Europe.
Images of St. Nicholas vary considerably, but none of them look much like the red-cheeked, white-bearded old man seen everywhere today. One of the most compelling views of the real St. Nick, who lived in the third and fourth centuries, was created not by ancient artists but by using modern forensic facial reconstruction. Scholarly debate over where the remains of the Greek bishop rest continues to this day, but traditionally, it was believed that the bones of St.
Nicholas were stolen by Italian sailors during the 11th century and taken to the crypt of the Basilica di San Nicola on the southeast coast of Italy. When the crypt was repaired in the s, the saint's skull and bones were documented with x-ray photos and thousands of detailed measurements.
For theories on other possible resting places of St. Caroline Wilkinson, a facial anthropologist at the University of Manchester England , used these data and modern software simulations to create a modern reconstruction of the long-dead man. Wilkinson put a human face on Santa's original namesake—one with a badly broken nose, possibly suffered during the persecution of Christians under the Roman Emperor Diocletian.
Many believe that it houses the mortal remains and holy relics of St. Much of her work is necessarily subject to interpretation.
The size and shape of the facial muscles that once covered Nicholas's skull had to be inferred, and the shape of that skull itself was recreated from two-dimensional data. Digital artists added details that were based on best guesses, including the olive-toned skin most common among Greek Mediterraneans like Nicholas, brown eyes, and the gray hair of a year-old man. How did this St. Nicholas turn into the North Pole-dwelling bringer of Christmas gifts?
The original saint was a Greek born in the late third century, around A. He became bishop of Myra, a small Roman town in modern Turkey. Nicholas was neither fat nor jolly but developed a reputation as a fiery, wiry, and defiant defender of church doctrine during the Great Persecution in , when Bibles were burned and priests made to renounce Christianity or face execution. Nicholas defied these edicts and spent years in prison before the Roman emperor Constantine ended Christian persecution in with the Edict of Milan.
Nicholas's fame lived long after his death on December 6 in the mid-fourth century, around because he was associated with many miracles, and reverence for him continues to this day independent of his Christmas connection. He is the protector of many types of people, from orphans to sailors to prisoners.
Nicholas rose to prominence among the saints because he was the patron of so many groups. By about , explained University of Manitoba historian Gerry Bowler , author of Santa Claus: A Biography , he became known as a patron of children and magical gift bringer because of two great stories from his life. In the better-known tale, three young girls are saved from a life of prostitution when young Bishop Nicholas secretly delivers three bags of gold to their indebted father, which can be used for their dowries.
Nicholas entered an inn whose keeper had just murdered three boys and pickled their dismembered bodies in basement barrels. The bishop not only sensed the crime, but resurrected the victims as well. For several hundred years, circa to , St. Nicholas was the unchallenged bringer of gifts and the toast of celebrations centered around his feast day, December 6.
The strict saint took on some aspects of earlier European deities, like the Roman Saturn or the Norse Odin, who appeared as white-bearded men and had magical powers like flight. He also ensured that kids toed the line by saying their prayers and practicing good behavior. But after the Protestant Reformation began in the s, saints like Nicholas fell out of favor across much of northern Europe. Bowler said that, in many cases, that job fell to baby Jesus, and the date was moved to Christmas rather than December 6.
Some of these scary Germanic figures again were based on Nicholas, no longer as a saint but as a threatening sidekick like Ru-klaus Rough Nicholas , Aschenklas Ashy Nicholas , and Pelznickel Furry Nicholas.
Saint Nicholas - Patron Saint, Feast Day & Santa - Biography
These figures expected good behavior or forced children to suffer consequences like whippings or kidnappings. Dissimilar as they seem to the jolly man in red, these colorful characters would later figure in the development of Santa himself. Related: "Who Is Krampus? He also reportedly saved three men who were falsely imprisoned and sentenced to death. Several sources state Saint Nicholas is believed to have died on December 6, Over the years, stories of his miracles and work for the poor spread to other parts of the world. He became known as the protector of children and sailors and was associated with gift-giving.
He was a popular saint in Europe until the time of the Reformation in the s, a religious movement that led to the creation of Protestantism, which turned away from the practice of honoring saints.
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Saint Nicholas, however, remained an important figure in Holland. The Dutch continued to celebrate the feast day of Saint Nicholas, December 6. It was a common practice for children to put out their shoes the night before.
Who Was Saint Nicholas?
In the morning, they would discover the gifts that Saint Nicholas had left there for them. In the poem "An Account of a Visit from Saint Nicholas" by Clement Clarke Moore, he is described as a jolly, heavy man who comes down the chimney to leave presents for deserving children and drives a sleigh pulled by flying reindeer.
The cartoonist Thomas Nast added to the Saint Nicholas legend with an drawing of Santa as wearing a red suit with white fur trim. Once a kind, charitable bishop, Saint Nicholas had become the Santa Claus we know today. In , a team from the University of Oxford radiocarbon tested a fragment of a pelvic bone said to be from Saint Nicholas. The test confirmed that the bone fragment, owned by an American priest, dated from the saint's era.
Archaeologists then hoped to match the bone to others purportedly belonging to Saint Nicholas, including those housed in a crypt in Bari, Italy, since the 11th century. We strive for accuracy and fairness. If you see something that doesn't look right, contact us! Sign up for the Biography newsletter to receive stories about the people who shaped our world and the stories that shaped their lives.