St. Nicholas of Bari, the Christian bishop who inspired the character of Santa Claus

Published: December 06 Fri, 2019

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HOLY LAND – On December 6, the Catholic Church celebrates St. Nicholas, Bishop of Myra in the 4th century. Venerated also in the Orthodox Church, his figure inspired the character of Santa Claus.

To celebrate Advent there is no better place than Bethlehem, a place that was the birthplace of Jesus. In this time of waiting, the Roman liturgical calendar remembers a special saint, given his intimate significance with the Western tradition of Christmas. We speak of Saint Nicholas of Bari, the Christian bishop who gave rise to the figure of Santa Claus.

St. Nicholas was born in Patara di Licia, a maritime city in southern Turkey around 270 AD and was Bishop of Myra, situated in the same region of Asia Minor. He lived between the 3rd and 4th centuries, at a time marked by Imperial persecutions against Christians that did not spare even Nicholas. Under Emperor Diocletian, the saint of Patara was imprisoned because of his faith in Christ, only to be released by Constantine in 313, when he resumed his apostolic activity.

This was an age when the Church was still quite young, the time of the Edict of Milan and the Council of Nicea (325) at which probably, at least for the latter, Nicholas participated. About his spiritual life we know, through the writings of Andrew of Crete and John Damascene, he was known to be deeply rooted in the principles of Catholic orthodoxy. About his activity as Bishop of Myra we know that, during a famine that struck his city, he managed to procure the necessities to have the population survive and gained the reduction of Imperial imposed taxes. He died in Myra on December 6, 337.

The relics of St. Nicholas were preserved in the Cathedral of Myra until the 11th century when, fearing that they could be destroyed by the then-dominant Muslims, a group of Bari sailors brought to Italy pretty much all the remains, leaving them in Bari on May 9, 1087. Because of this, to the present time, St. Nicholas of Bari is remembered instead of St. Nicholas of Myra. A second transfer of what remained of the body of St. Nicholas was carried out from Myra about ten years later, by some Venetians. The sailors of the Serenissima brought to Venice some small bone fragments of St. Nicholas’ body, still preserved in the Church of St. Nicholas in Lido.

The rest of the information that we have about him comes from tradition, if not directly from legend. It is well known that this Christian saint inspired the character of Santa Claus from some events of Nicholas’ life that were handed down over time. The fact that more than all others contributed to the development of the Santa Claus character is that Nicholas revived three children killed by an evil host. This earned Nicholas the title “protector of children”. A recognition whose echo was amplified in time expanding beyond the boundaries of the Mediterranean basin and reaching continental Europe. For this reason, St. Nicholas of Bari is still the patron of the French region of Lorraine, of all Russia (primarily due to Oriental Orthodox tradition), and the Dutch city of Amsterdam. And, it is precisely in Amsterdam that the appellative by which Santa Claus is known worldwide, deriving from “Sinterklass”, the Dutch name of St. Nicholas.

A bridge between the East and West, St. Nicholas unites in devotion all Christians.

In the Holy Land, he is the patron and protector of the Palestinian city of Beit Jala, a place when every December 19 (Orthodox date), his memory brings together the faithful of all the Christian denominations: Orthodox, Catholics, Protestants. The faithful of Beit Jala attribute numerous miracles to the saint. It is said that in 1948, the then parish priest of Beit Jala, Fr. Giacomo Giuseppe Beltritti (later Patriarch Beltritti) saw St. Nicholas make himself a shield against the bombs in defense of the city, which prompted the priest to report it in Rome. The Vatican, in response, sent an icon of St. Nicholas to Beit Jala to be placed in the Church of Annunciation in his honor.

Filippo De Grazia