Nicholas himself is almost legendary. He is supposed to have been Bishop of Myra (in Asia Minor) around the time of Constantine the Great (early fourth century). His first mention in literature is in the reign of Justinian (sixth century). Between these two dates, a body of oral tradition seems to have formed around Myra's legendary first bishop and the miracles associated with his tomb, most notably the fact that the tomb exuded an oil or balm with healing properties.
Nicholas is associated first of all with the sea. Myra was a seaport, and the first church there seems to have been built over an old temple of Poseidon (which, the legend goes, Nicholas is said to have toppled in dramatic fashion). This aspect made him a favourite of sailors (who would often throw three loaves of bread overboard in his honour when they felt a storm brewing), and because Byzantium was an empire built on sea trade, he became a favourite in Constantinople as well.
Another early story of legend discusses Nicholas' saving of three Imperial officials who had been unjustly accused of crimes; Nicholas is thus the prototype of bishops who uphold the Church in the face of opposition from State authority-- a fact which would make him a favourite of reform-minded Popes of the eleventh and twelfth centuries.
Then there is, of course, the famous story of how Nicholas saved the three daughters of a poor man from being sold into prostitution by tossing bags of gold into the windows of their house at night. (In this way, Nicholas became associated with gift-giving, patronage of the poor, and, incidentally, of pawnbrokers, who still use the symbol of three balls of gold to this day.) You will notice the number three keeps reappearing in Nicholas stories -- many in the Middle Ages thus associated him with the Trinity, and thus, the defence of orthodoxy.
A final famous story about Nicholas should be mentioned. He is said to have resurrected three boys or students, who had been killed and pickled in a tub (sometimes for as long as seven years) by a nasty innkeeper. In this way, Nicholas became associated with the patronage of children and students. His feast day is close to that of St. Catherine of Alexandria, another patron of scholars, and the two thus became associated with each other (Nicholas and Catherine was a favourite pair of names for twins in the Middle Ages.)
In an event mentioned by nearly every major western chronicler, Nicholas' body and relics were translated (moved) to the Italian city of Bari in 1087. Thereafter, the cult of Nicholas, heretofore a mostly Byzantine saint, became more and more popular in the West, aided, perhaps, by the presence of Russian Varangians in Bari, who regarded Nicholas as the patron of their own people. Interestingly enough, the new tomb in Bari also exuded an oil or balm as well.
Nicholas was the subject, along with Catherine, of the earliest extant mystery plays of the Middle Ages. He also became a favourite patron of guilds and confraternities, as he was associated both with helping the poor and with merchants and banking. Because of his association with students and the poor, he became associated especially with the Friars Minor (Franciscans); the proper name of Greyfriars at Oxford is actually the College of St. Nicholas.
In the later Middle Ages, several traditions became associated with the celebration of St. Nicholas Day (December 6). One of these was the tradition of the "Boy Bishop", where students in the schools would choose one of their own to rule them for the Christmas season, often to delicious excess. Gift-giving would also often be involved. Many of these traditions also became associated with the twelve days after Christmas, as gift-giving was also associated with the New Year, and because of the tradition of the arrival of the Magi bearing gifts for the Christ Child on January 6. Even after tight controls were placed on these official celebrations, Nicholas continued to play a part in less official ones. Often accompanied by devils or fairies (such as Black Peter), he would visit the homes of children in the Netherlands, leaving fruits, candies, and "Nicholas cakes" in the shoes of good children, and bundles of switches in those of bad children. Mummers' processions often involved Nicholas as well. Partially as a result of these decidedly secular observances, Nicholas gradually lost status as one of the more exalted saints of the Catholic church.
The invention of Santa Claus is another thing altogether. Many of these customs had died out in Europe by the nineteenth century, only to be revived by American writers like Washington Irving and Clement Moore, who reinvented the old saint in a new guise. Nicholas, who had once rode a white horse like a knight, was now equipped with a sleigh and reindeer, and the sprites who once accompanied him were now transformed into toymaking elves. This American Santa has traveled back across the Atlantic in the past hundred years and reawakened the memories of old customs long forgotten in those countries. But he, like so many of the 'old traditions" we observe, is a product of the nineteenth century--though his antecedents may certainly be found in the St. Nicholas of the Middle Ages.
Copyright 1992, 1997 Susan Carroll-Clark. All rights reserved.