A pop quiz: Dec. 7 was the feast day of what saint?
Hint: He’s one of the most revered saints among Roman Catholics and Orthodox Christians, yet his legacy has more to do with malls than churches.
We’re talking about St. Nicholas, the fourth-century bishop from Turkey who evolved into the mythical Santa Claus, symbol of giving and of the world’s most frenzied shopping season.
Most people, even faithful Catholic and Orthodox Christians, are more likely to know the names of Santa’s reindeers than they are to know much about the life of St. Nicholas.
It’s fascinating how a devoted religious man became inflated, through symbolic associations, into this jolly old man who flies through the air and comes down chimneys, said Patricia Byrne, a religion professor at Trinity College in Hartford.
St. Nicholas was born in 271 in the town of Pataras in what is now Turkey. He was a devout Christian from a wealthy family. After inheriting his parents’ riches, Nicholas decided to use his wealth to help the poor. Eventually he became bishop of Myra, a city near his birthplace that was part of the Roman Empire.
These were difficult days for Christianity, which suffered under Roman rule. But Nicholas proved fearlessly willing to challenge injustice. Once he came to the aid of three Roman soldiers who had been unfairly tried, and forced the local Roman governor to let them go.
Nicholas also is said to have saved three sailors from stormy seas off the Turkish coast.
Perhaps the most famous story from Nicholas’s life is that of the wealthy merchant who had lost all his money and was going to force his three daughters to become prostitutes. Upon hearing this, Nicholas, under cover of darkness, went to the girls’ home and threw three bags of gold through either an open window or down the chimney - there are differing versions of the story.
It’s easy to see how all this became fodder for the Santa Claus story.
After his death in 342, Nicholas’s reputation for goodness gave rise to legends that made him one of the most venerated Christian saints. In 1007, after Myra had fallen to the Muslims, Nicholas’s remains were transported to Bari, where they remain marked, in what is now southern Italy. Nicholas eventually became the patron saint of children and sailors.
Documents from the 14th century show that choirboys received gifts of money on St. Nicholas’s feast day, Dec. 6. And religious school students received rewards or reprimands on that day from teachers disguised as the beloved bishop.
Dutch sailors adopted Nicholas as their guardian on long voyages. That’s how St. Nicholas was transported to New Amsterdam - now New York City. When the English took control of the city from the Dutch, St. Nicholas’s veneration was deemphasized.
Following the Protestant Reformation, Catholic saints were not accepted by many Protestants. So St. Nicholas became intertwined with Father Christmas, a mythic Nordic figure who dispensed gifts to good children, and evolved into the secular figure recognized today.
In the Netherlands, however, St. Nicholas is still celebrated as an important religious figure. There, he arrives not on a sleigh from the North Pole, but on a barge from Spain, regarded as Nicholas’s homeland after Bari fell to Spanish rule in the 16th and 17th centuries.
That a humble, pious, and generous man became linked to the jolly old man who seems to represent rampant commercialism is a source of irritation for some Christians familar with the story of St. Nicholas.
“The real St. Nicholas was a deeply caring and godly man whose simple life and powerful faith inspired people for centuries,” said Walter Skold, a Marlborough resident and founder of a group calling itself “Anti-Santa Love Nicholas.” “Unfortunately, the modern creature, Americana Santa Claus, has developed into a very deceptive idol whose jolly face hides an undercurrent of selfishness and secularism.”