The Story of St. Nicholas

Renee Montagne follows the story of Santa Claus, from his origins as a Greek Orthodox bishop named Nicholas in the fourth century to his status as an icon of Christmas. Jeremy Seal, author of Nicholas: The Epic Journey From Saint to Santa Claus , says the real Nicholas was sanctified for his anonymous gift of gold to three impoverished girls, delivered through a window one winter night.

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RENEE MONTAGNE, host:

The legend of St. Nick begins with a single act of charity that's echoed down the centuries. Around 350 AD, there lived a Greek Orthodox bishop in what's now Turkey by the name of Nicholas. Nicholas heard that a poverty-stricken townsman had become so desperate he was prepared to sell his three beautiful daughters into prostitution. So late one night, Nicholas slipped over to the man's house and tossed a bag of gold through a high window. The gift to the girls saved them. Thus begins the tale told by writer Jeremy Seal in his new book, "Nicholas: The Epic Journey from Saint to Santa Claus."

Mr. JEREMY SEAL (Author): In the 4th century, when Nicholas was living, the vast majority of the saints from that time are martyr saints. And I think what made this particular act so remarkable and so resonant was the fact that it was something very, very human which allowed people to relate to the story in a way that they couldn't perhaps relate to others.

MONTAGNE: Leap ahead really several centuries. How did St. Nicholas survive the Protestant reformation, because, of course, that swept aside all of the Catholic saints?

Mr. SEAL: But I think the saints who were, if you like, most closely associated to the rituals of the home were the ones that were able to resist this. And this was certainly true with St. Nicholas. By the 15th century, his saint's day, which was December the 5th, December the 6th, was associated with a prototype of our Santa Claus rituals. That's to say St. Nicholas came secretly at night, came down the chimney, gave children gifts and disappeared. And what also happened on that date was that people baked gingerbread cakes in the shape of St. Nicholas. So it was almost as if his image, which the Protestants were busy smashing in their churches and erasing from the walls, was being reproduced in the form of these delicious gingerbread cakes and it was very, very hard for the authorities to actually clamp down on those.

MONTAGNE: What you're saying is in a way he really was quite a bit of what he was...

Mr. SEAL: He...

MONTAGNE: ...hundreds of years ago.

Mr. SEAL: If you look back--I mean, I've managed to find frescoes in Serbia from the late 1300s which, for example, depict `St. Nicholas and the three daughters' story with St. Nicholas dropping the bags of gold not through the window, but--for the very first time, as far as I'm aware--down the chimney.

MONTAGNE: So at what point did this quite venerated St. Nicholas go from St. Nicholas to Santa Claus?

Mr. SEAL: Well, in my view, he was already halfway to being Santa Claus by the time he reached Holland, say from the 14th century. The popular short-form Dutch for St. Nicholas is Sinter Klaus. He was exported to America as a kind of dormant folk memory in the early decades of the settling of Manhattan. But I think what actually drove St. Nicholas to a revival was that from the 1780s, say, the revolution and the creation of commercial products meant that gift-giving as a custom began to acquire fresh momentum. Prior to that, it seems to me, it had been the local exchange of handmade gifts. And suddenly objects were flooding in from Europe, particularly toys, and this meant that commercial, canny interests in Manhattan began to realize that St. Nicholas was a figure which could lead this transformation in the significance and importance of gift-giving.

MONTAGNE: That is definitely, though, the beginning of his slide towards advertising Coca-Cola.

Mr. SEAL: Slide. I mean, yes, I think it is a slide. There is a wonderful 1840s woodcut which shows him holding a bag over his shoulder and he's going down a chimney, and on the bag a local shop in Albany, New York, has actually written on the bag, `All those toys are from Pieces at number 50 Broadway.' So that's the first kind of endorsement that he carries, even in the 1840s. Having said that, he hangs on. He still means something very, very important. And it seems to me actually that all he needs to do is he needs to remember what St. Nicholas is and was known for, i.e., this defining act of charity.

MONTAGNE: Jeremy Seal, thank you very much for joining us.

Mr. SEAL: Thank you very much indeed.

MONTAGNE: Jeremy Seal is the author of "Nicholas: The Epic Journey from Saint to Santa Claus."

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