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     Our western tradition of Santa Claus originates with St. Nicholas, who is quite a different personality from the jolly old elf we know today.  According to tradition, St. Nicholas was born in 260 AD in what is now Turkey.  He was known among the poor for his generosity and his love for children.  St. Nicholas was eventually consecrated Bishop of Myra, just a few miles from his home town.

Detail of cemetery monument to St. Nicholas, Mt. Calvary Cemetery, Cambridge, Ohio showing the boys in the pickling tub.

     Images of St. Nicholas in many art forms often show him alongside three boys or young men in a barrel.   One version of the story associated with this image is that a wealthy gentleman sent his sons to Athens to study theology (some versions say two sons, some say three).  He told the boys to stop at Myra and pay their respects to the bishop.  The boys arrived at the city at nightfall.  Because of the late hour, they decided to stay in an inn overnight and call on the bishop in the morning.

     The landlord of the inn was an evil man, and when he saw their rich baggage he decided to murder the boys and take their belongings.  When the boys were asleep, he crept to their room and killed them, then cut up their bodies and packed them in a pickling tub with some pork, intending to sell the whole to some ship heading out of port.  No one would ever be the wiser.

     But that night St. Nicholas dreamed about the murder of the boys.  When he awoke in the morning, he put on his robes, took his crosier in hand, and went to the inn fired with holy indignation.  The landlord was terrified when he saw the bishop.  When St. Nicholas confronted him, he fell on his knees and confessed.

     St. Nicholas then went to the tub and opened it, revealing its horrific contents.  He passed his hands over the tub and the boys, their lives and bodies miraculously restored, at once hopped out of the pickled pork alive and whole.  They began to sing praises to St. Nicholas, but he told them to worship none but God.  The boys recovered their possessions and went on their way rejoicing.  From that day on St. Nicholas was regarded as the special protector of boys and students.

“St. Nicholas with the Three Boys in the Pickling Tub”, oak sculpture, South Netherlandish, c. 1500. Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York.

     St. Nicholas goes by many names and under many traditions.  He is known as Sinterklaas in the Netherlands.  He arrives by way of steamboat from Spain two weeks before his traditional birthday, December 6.  He and his helper, Zwarte Piet (Black Pete) disperse candy and gifts to good children during the night (referring to his book that lists good and bad children).  Good children receive presents, but bad children may be carried back to Spain with him!  The saint has a long white beard, wears a red mantle, bishop’s mitre, and carries his golden crosier. 

     Children in Luxemburg call him Kleeschen, and Belgian children know him as Sint Nicklaas.  In Germany, he is known by several names (Klaasbuur, Sunnercia, and Rauklas, for example), and in eastern Germany he also goes by names that are reflective of early Norse pagan influences (Shaggy Goat, Ash Man, and Rider).  After the reformation he changed his attire to a red suit with fur, and his dark-skinned helper is most often called Knecht Ruprecht.  Recently he has begun showing up on Christmas Eve in Germany, when he is called Father Christmas.

     France also knows him as Pere Noel (Father Christmas) and he travels in the company of Pere Fouettard.  Pere Noel leaves presents for good children, and Pere Fouettard is in charge of disciplining bad children with a spanking.  

     In old Russia, St. Nicholas Day was celebrated, but under Communism he took the name of Grandfather Frost and wore blue instead of red.  In Sicily, he comes on December 13 and is often called Santa Lucia.

      Strictly speaking, Santa Claus and St. Nicholas are not synonymous.  But whatever you call him — saint, or jolly old elf — for much of the world he symbolizes the good will and happiness of the holiday celebration.

Published by on December 2010. Filed under Archives, Art-to-Art Palette Journal, Bugle Section. You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0. Both comments and pings are currently closed.

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