Nearly everyone knows that Santa Claus--the obese, old gent who squeezes himself down the chimney every Christmas Eve--is the American alter ego of St. Nicholas. Slimmer and less overtly jolly, St. Nicholas roams about Western Europe showering children with presents on his traditional feast day of Dec. 6. In the Netherlands and parts of Germany, children expect a visit from a white-bearded, ecclesiastically garbed "Sinterklaas" (his Dutch name), who decides whether they have been naughty or nice before handing out treats from his sack.
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Dutch and German immigrants brought St. Nicholas to America in the early 19th century, and he began a process of assimilation, trading in his bishop's miter and crosier for a fur-trimmed red suit and cap. The Santa we now know was the creation of poet Clement Clarke Moore (1779-1863), the author of "The Night Before Christmas"; cartoonist Thomas Nast; illustrators like N.C. Wyeth and Norman Rockwell; and the magazine ads for Coca-Cola KO +0.19% painted by Haddon Simmons starting in 1931, in which Santa took a break from the arduousness of setting up junior's electric train by pausing to have a coke.
In "The Saint Who Would Be Santa Claus," Adam English, a religion professor at Campbell University in North Carolina, doesn't spend much time exploring the various practices and traditions associated with this festive figure. Rather, Mr. English is in search of the man himself. He notes that the real St. Nicholas--if he even existed--is obscured not only by the trappings of Santa Claus but by the layers of medieval folklore that had grown up around him in earlier centuries. In one legend, Nicholas miraculously brings back to life three boys whom an evil innkeeper has murdered, chopped into pieces and thrown into a pickle barrel--hence Nicholas became the patron saint of children.
Another favorite story, first told by the eighth-century monk Michael the Archimandrite, concerned a once-wealthy man who lost his fortune and decided to sell his three daughters into prostitution because he couldn't provide dowries. Nicholas, whose own parents had left him a large inheritance, sneaked up to the man's house in the dead of night and threw three bags of gold through the window, enabling the girls to find respectable husbands. He thus became the patron saint of spinsters and of pawnbrokers (for whom he became a "guarantor of payment"); the three balls on pawnshop signs are stylized versions of Nicholas's bags of gold. "In this endearing and enduring story, we see all the raw materials for the magical Santa Claus tale," Mr. English writes, "a mysterious night visitor who silently enters the home to bestow wonderful gifts to children." Mr. English notes that Nicholas gives from his own pocket, secretly, and with a purpose of encouraging moral behavior.
Nicholas of Myra is believed to have been born around 270 A.D. and died in 343. Unlike other church fathers, he left no writings, and the first mention of him dates from only the sixth century. In 325 he supposedly attended the Council of Nicaea, the gathering of churchmen that affirmed the divinity of Christ. There, according to legend, Nicholas was briefly imprisoned for slugging the heretic Arius in a fit of righteous rage. But the earliest lists of attendees don't mention a "Nicholas," and many historians of Christianity have concluded the saint never existed.
SOURCE: The Wall Street Journal