By 1200 A.D., give or take a century, St. Nicholas’ years as a saint had begun to resemble Elvis Presley in his Ed Sullivan days. Just as Elvis was one of the most popular singers in the nation, playing packed shows to hoards of screaming young women but had not yet reached the pinnacle of his later success in Las Vegas, Nicholas was one of the most popular saints in Christendom but he was still a saint, not Europe’s favorite gift-giver. And just as Elvis adopted sequin-covered jump-suits as his regular attire, St. Nicholas adopted a red bishop’s robes and miter, a bishop’s staff and a long, white beard.
The actual appearance of St. Nicholas during his life is one of the many unknowns. The first depictions of him did not occur until roughly four centuries after his death, and therefore could not possibly have been accurate likenesses. The earliest depiction of him is an icon dated between 650 and 750 A.D. from the monastery of St. Catherine on Mount Sinai. Between the thirteenth and sixteenth centuries, numerous additional icons begin to appear in Eastern Orthodox churches. Virtually all show an unremarkable middle-aged man with a receding hairline and a narrow, beak-like nose (and all could have been based on a single icon). In these depictions, none of which could be called jolly, he was either clean-shaven or wore a short, well-trimmed beard. A smaller number depict him as a dark-skinned man of either African or Middle-Eastern origin.
The first depictions of St. Nicholas as the Yuletide gift-giver appear during the eighteenth century , and I have been able to document only a half-dozen such illustrations prior to publication of the 1850 book, Sint Nikolaas en zijn Knecht, by Dutch school teacher Jan Schenkman. Two are European paintings from the late eighteenth century, one showing St. Nicholas on a horse riding down a busy street and the other showing him entering a home with Krampus or one of the other evil helpers. The third is a broadside commissioned in 1810 by John Pintard, one of the leaders of the New-York Historical Society, with an engraving of the saint, a poem about him in English and Dutch, and drawings of two children next to stockings hung by the fireplace. The fourth, which I already posted in an earlier description of St. Nicholas, is an 1820 painting by an Austrian artist showing the saint with miter, crozier and the full bishop’s garb in front of a Christmas tree with a devilish figure, presumably Krampus, standing guard at the door.
All of these illustrations, including Schenkman’s1850 book, depict essentially the same figure one finds today in the Netherlands or other European nations where Sinterklaas or St. Nicholas appear in public—a tall, fit, imposing man with long white hair and a very long curly white beard, wearing traditional bishop’s robes in red, including the traditional bishop’s hat known as a miter and a bishop’s staff known as a crozier. These depictions of St. Nicholas look nothing like the St. Nicholas depicted in churches or religious icons. On the other hand, if a bishop’s robes, miter and staff are added to depictions of Odin, the resulting figures look a great deal like the modern St. Nicholas. The same thing is true of Silenus, Saturn and Thor—and these gods also have their own sleighs and animals to pull them.
In 4000 Years of Christmas, anthropologist Earl Count writes that when “we trace the roots that [Odin/Woden] has struck into the life of the Germanic peoples, we find him turning up in the most unexpected places . . . [Odin/Woden] has become Santa Claus, or, as he is better called, St. Nicholas.” Among the bases for this assertion are that St. Nicholas looks like Odin and that the gift-giving traditions of Odin and St. Nicholas are virtually identical. Many of the practices attributed to St. Nicholas—in particular, flying through the air on an animal-drawn vehicle of some sort, entering through the chimney, and leaving gifts for “good” children in stockings or shoes left out for this purpose—can be found in the Germanic myths of Odin and Berchta.
As Miles explains with regard to St. Nicholas, “[b]efore they go to bed the children put out their shoes, with hay, straw, or a carrot in them for the saint’s white horse or ass. When they wake in the morning, if they have been ‘good’ the fodder is gone and sweet things or toys are in its place; if they have misbehaved themselves the provender is untouched and no gift but a rod is there.” The only difference between this tradition and those involving Odin is the name of the horse for which children leave the hay and carrots.
Most historians, folklorists and anthropologists who have written on the issue have concluded, like Miles and Count, that the legend of St. Nicholas as Christmas gift-giver was created during the Middle Ages when Christian missionaries encountered Germanic tribes which celebrated Yule celebration in early December. Because those ceremonies were too early in the year to be characterized as celebrations of the Nativity, the missionaries used St. Nicholas’ Day on December 6 to Christianize the pagan Yule celebrations involving Odin or Berchta. In the 1917 biography St. Nicholas, historian McKnight asserts that similar gift-giving practices developed with St. Nicholas, St. Martin and St. Andrews where their feast days occurred near the Yule celebration for which the missionaries needed to identify a “Christian purpose.”
“[T]he customs in question, in their origin, had little, if anything, to do with St. Nicholas, and as they exist to-day show only in certain external features any relation with the life story of the kindly eastern saint. This impression of the earlier independence of the popular customs in question from the story of St. Nicholas, is confirmed by the fact that many of them are associated with other names. St. Martin, as well as St. Nicholas, figures as a giver of gifts to children, especially in the Netherlands. The celebration of St. Andrew’s Day also has features similar to those of St. Nicholas’ Day.
It has already been hinted that in some respects St. Nicholas is a duplicate of St. Martin. His feast, indeed, is probably a later beginning-of-winter festival, dating from the period when improved methods of agriculture and other causes made early December, rather than mid-November, the time for the great annual slaughter and its attendant rejoicings. Like St. Martin he brings sweet things for the good children and rods for the bad. In a slight twist on the accepted explanation for using St. Nicholas to Christianize the pagan traditions, Miles writes that St. Martin, whose feast day is November 11, was the original Christian substitute for Odin, and that St. Nicholas stepped in when advances in agriculture pushed the traditional Yule celebration to early December.
Regardless of who came first, St. Nicholas eventually became the predominate gift-giver where the pagan Yule celebrations occurred in early December—a band in the northern half of Europe that includes the modern-day Netherlands, Belgium, northern Germany, Poland, Austria, the Czech Republic and Hungary. In the southern half of Europe, on the other hand, the pagan celebration of Saturnalia had already been converted into a celebration of the Feast of the Nativity—that is, Christmas—in the fourth century.
Unlike northern Europe, no one ever promoted St. Nicholas as a gift-giver in southern Europe because there was no need to do so. Rather, gifts are commonly given three or four weeks later, on Christmas, New Year’s Day or Three Kings Day. By the same token, St. Nicholas never had much of a following in England, which was celebrating Christmas by the seventh century, or in Scandinavia, where Yule would likely have occurred in November but the goats, gnomes and elves of Scandinavian folklore retained their role in the celebration of Yule even after Christianity arrived.
Wheeler and Rosenthal assert that St. Nicholas began serving as a gift-giver in the twelfth century based on stories that French nuns during that period began to leave gifts for orphans on December 6 to celebrate the generosity of St. Nicholas. The earliest written documentation of the St. Nicholas tradition, however, comes from the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries. In the mid-sixteenth century, Thomas Naogeorgus, a German dramatist and theologian, told the story in poetry.
Saint Nicholas money used to give
To maidens secretly,
Who, that he still may use
His wonted liberalitie
The mothers all their children on the eve
Do cause to fast
And when they every one at night
In senselesse sleepe are cast
Both Apples, Nuttes, and peares they bring,
And other things besides
As caps, and shoes and petticotes,
Which secretly they hide,
And in the morning found, they say
That this Saint Nicholas brought.
One notable aspect of the tradition described by Naogeorgus: St. Nicholas doesn’t appear while the children are awake but, rather, leaves the gifts while they sleep. This practice is consistent with the most prominent visual depictions of the tradition by two Dutch masters during the seventeenth century: a 1668 painting, The Feast of St Nicholas, by Jan Havicksz Steen and a 1685 painting, St. Nicholas Eve, by Richard Brakenburg, both of which depict children on the morning after St Nicholas’ visit. In the Steen painting, the artist also conveys that only good children receive gifts from the saint by depicting a little girl with a bucket full of treats and a crying boy with a switch. Although not credited to Steen, the two children later ended up on the broadsheet engraved by artist Alexander Anderson for the New-York Historical Society in 1810.
There are also many accounts, however, where St. Nicholas appears in person on the evening before St. Nicholas’ Day, often with an evil sidekick in tow. In this tradition, St. Nicholas typically will visit on the evening of December 5, knocking on the front door when he arrives. Some accounts say that when the door was opened, the gift-giver or his sidekick would throw a variety of sweets or nuts on to the floor, causing the children to scramble in a manner reminiscent of the breaking of a piñata. St. Nicholas or Sinterklaas would then question the children to determine whether they could answer a few catechism questions, or otherwise had been good or bad, while the evil sidekick stood by silently. Other accounts have the questioning before the goodies are thrown onto the floor. In either case, St. Nicholas and the gift-giver would depart after questioning the children, sometimes returning later that evening when the children had retired to bed to fill their shoes with treats.
Whether St. Nicholas travels with an evil helper, and, if so, who, is a more complex question than it might seem. In most cases, as noted above, the saint did not actually appear in person. When he did appear in person, bringing an evil helper was optional, and given the complexity of producing a credible evil helper it was probably more unusual than the lengthy discussion of evil helpers might make it seem. Where St. Nicholas chose to bring an evil helper with him, however, the identity of the helper varied largely based on the nation and region but even within a particular region there might be more than one evil helper.
Tom A. Jerman