What St Nicholas Did…

Last week I was back in southern Turkey on the trail of St Nicholas, the fourth-century bishop whom I first wrote about decades back in my Santa: A Life (or, more solemnly, Nicholas: The Epic Journey from Saint to Santa Claus in the US edition).

It is a remarkable story – and an almost entirely posthumous one.   The best, and only, evidence for St Nicholas’s life is a sixth-century reference to his original shrine at Myra, now the little Turkish tomato-growing town of Demre; the life of the man is attested only by virtue of one recorded fact in relation to his death.

I write his ‘original shrine’ because his relic remains were famously lifted from Myra in 1087 and removed to Bari in southern Italy.  Since then bits of him have appeared, allegedly, all over the place – in New York, St Petersburg, Venice and Antalya, Turkey to name but a few.  His posthumous existence is all, as much for the journeyings of his relic remains, and for his startling nineteenth-century reinvention as Santa Claus/Father Christmas, as for the fact that the stories about St Nicholas were in most cases first attributed to him after, often many centuries after, his death.

These stories are legion.  Compare with near contemporaries of his such as Saints Valentine and Catherine, revered for their extreme courage exhibited in dying for their faith, but saints with a single story.  What do we know of Catherine other than the firework named for the wheel on which her persecutors attempted to break her?

St Nicholas was among the first of the so-called confessor saints – bearing witness to the faith by the holiness of his life rather than by martyrdom.  It is precisely the wealth of stories that serves as evidence of that holiness.  They tell of St Nicholas rescuing drowning sailors; of saving his people from famine by persuading a sea captain bound for Rome with a cargo of grain to unload at Myra (and discovering to his delight that he is not a peck short when the consignment is finally inspected at Rome); of appearing in visions to the Emperor Constantine and through his offices causing the release of the wrongly imprisoned; of miraculously reconstituting three boys after they were brutally butchered and pickled in brine; and even of exorcising a demon which had taken up residence in a tree.

We may consider these stories as projections of the age in which they flourished – the Pickled Boys, especially popular in the medieval period, may echo colourful and no doubt alarmist famine-period gossip of innkeepers passing off human flesh as ham.    What they all have in common is a measure of the supernatural or miraculous.

Which brings us to Three Daughters.  Writers have a material interest, of course, in what makes one story work and another fail; the question is especially interesting in relation to Three Daughters, the most ‘successful’ and most widely referenced of all the Nicholas stories.  It tells of how the young and affluent Nicholas, hearing of an impoverished neighbour’s intention to prostitute his three daughters, provides each of them with gold sufficient for a dowry which will secure them marriage partners.  Their benefactor comes at night to slip three bags of gold through the nobleman’s window (which you’ll see I’ve circled, for reasons that will become apparent, in Fra Angelico’s 1447 rendering of the story on the Perugia Triptych, now at the Vatican’s Pinacoteca Museum).  It is in Three Daughters – the giving of gifts, clandestinely, to the young at night – that the basics of the Santa Claus/Father Christmas story lie.

Establishing how the story evolved – where the reindeer, and the Far North, and the red suit and the stocking and the rest all came from – was central to the joy of writing this book.  The illustration here shows the earliest instance I was able to find of St Nicholas adopting the chimney rather than the window as his mode of entry (in a late-fourteenth century fresco from a church in Ramaca, Serbia.)

What’s radical about Three Daughters is precisely the absence of the miraculous.  It is simply – I won’t say nothing more than – an act of generosity, and a transforming one.  It has, of course, been cynically exploited, by pawnbrokers who in seeking equivalence between the service they offer and St Nicholas’s kindness have adopted the three gold bags as their motif, and by retailers bent on flogging ever more Christmas merchandise.   But in its pure form it tells of the active charity that defines Christmas – one thing we can all applaud in an often fraught and brutal world. 

A Happy Christmas to you all