Who is Santa Claus? On the trail of Saint Nicholas

If you’ve ever woken on Christmas morning to find your stocking empty (or perhaps filled with a few lumps of coal), you may have wondered sadly how your lovingly written letter to Santa could have missed the mark. But with so many millions of gluey, glitter-covered envelopes making the long journey from post box to the big man’s secret HQ, surely it’s no wonder that a few go AWOL along the way? Our advice would be: always use the postcode, and perhaps be more careful with the address.

‘Patara, Southern Turkey, 07960’

This address may look like it’s 4,000 miles in the wrong direction, but in fact the beautiful, unspoiled Mediterranean town of Patara is the birthplace of the bearded gift-giver, who we look out for with such excitement on Christmas Eve. Or rather, the birthplace of the third century Christian saint whose life of kindness and miraculous do-goodery created a legend which has evolved down the centuries, and given us the Santa Claus so familiar to us now.

Born into a wealthy family around the year 270, Saint Nicholas grew up in the ancient Greek and Roman port of Patara, in what is now south-west Turkey. He travelled to the Holy Land in his youth, and became the bishop of the nearby city of Myra (now Demre) on his return. After his death in 343 he quickly became one of the Christian church’s most revered, or popular saints, and has come to be associated with a remarkable collection of causes, because of the charitable acts of his lifetime.

The most famous of these are illustrated in two of the loveliest early paintings in the Scottish National Gallery: The Legends of Saint Nicholas by Gerard David, from the late 15th century; and an exquisite gold-framed altarpiece painted by Bernardo Daddi in 1338.

Gerard David, Three Legends of Saint Nicholas, about 1500-1520 and, right, Bernardo Daddi, Triptych, 1338.
Gerard David, Detail from Three Legends of Saint Nicholas, about 1500-1520

Secret night-time gift giver

Saint Nicholas is famous for his kindness - some accounts claim he gave all his parents’ wealth away when they died - but the incidents which most directly inspired our own Christmas traditions were Nick’s night-time visits to the house of a man who was too poor to pay his daughters’ wedding dowry. 

On three nights, the kindly bishop crept up to the window of the girls’ bedroom and dropped in a bag of gold coins, to save them from being sold into prostitution.

A secret gift-giver leaving presents in dead of night is the obvious model for the modern Santa Claus, and a number of other details in these stunning paintings point to traditions we know very well.

At the bottom of the bed in David’s painting you’ll see the sleeping girls’ shoes and stockings, into which the bags of gold are said to have fallen. While we hang up our stockings (pillow cases are CHEATING!) people across Europe still leave shoes for Santa to fill with sweets.

And of course the gold coins – the chocolate kind - are still with us, both in our stockings and in those giant bins we find so hard to ignore at supermarket checkouts.

Bernardo Daddi, Detail from Triptych, 1338.

Golden tradition

In many images of Saint Nicholas, those gold bags become more symbolic, and are often pictured as three gold balls. You can see them in this detail of the wing of Daddi's altarpiece.

For this reason Saint Nicholas has become the patron saint of pawnbrokers, whose shop signs traditionally take the form of three gold-painted balls.

This scene is also the origin of another item that frequently turns up in our stockings. The symbols that artists use often evolve over time, and in some images of Saint Nick, the gold balls have become oranges. Hence our own tradition of squashed, forgotten satsumas being found down the back of sofas in late January, and hastily scoffed chocolate versions causing mid-morning nausea on Christmas Day.

And since people in Northern Europe associate oranges with Spain, this is also the reason why Dutch children believe Santa Claus (or Sinterklass to them) arrives by steam boat from his home near Madrid!

Unknown, Detail from Saint Nicholas of Bari, 16th or 17th Century

He's making a list...

The big book that Saint Nicholas holds in this beautiful drawing by an unknown Italian artist is also worth noting.

It’s a sign that Saint Nick is also the patron saint of students and scholars, but following his transformation from bishop to magical flying toymaker, Santa now uses it to record (in very fancy writing), the names of those on both Nice and Naughty lists (so BE GOOD! For goodness’ sake!)

Gerard David, Detail from Three Legends of Saint Nicholas, about 1500-1520

Miracle worker

Working a number of notable miracles was Nick’s passport to sainthood, and another panel on David’s painting illustrates why he has become the patron of children.  It shows the bishop reviving three young boys who had been murdered, then cut up and pickled, so they could be sold as ham (NOT the Christmas ham, though).  The pickling tub that the boys stand in was later interpreted as a beer barrel, and the saint has now also become the patron of brewers too! Saint Nicholas’s miraculous abilities were also the reason why Italian sailors abducted his bones from his tomb in Myra in the 11th century, and took them to their home port of Bari, where they remain (for the most part) to this day, and where, reputedly, they continue to exude a miraculous substance known as ‘myrrh’.

In the 1950s the remains were removed from the tomb for the first time in nearly 900 years and analysed by a professor of human anatomy at the University of Bari. If you dare to a peep at the real Santa Claus, Dr Caroline Wilkinson of Liverpool John Moores University has recently created an astonishing 3D reconstruction, which uses the Saint’s remains to bring us face-to-face with the man himself.

On the trail of Saint Nicholas

So, for those with a desire to follow the legend of Saint Nicholas, there are a number of travel options open to you.  Bari remains a centre of celebration and pilgrimage, and Spain can be reached fairly easily. Few of us are ever likely to make it to the North Pole, but perhaps Patara is the most appropriate for those seeking the truth behind the myths. The ancient harbour has long since silted up, but the remains of this impressive Greek/Roman city now lie romantically buried in dunes, with many parts still unexcavated (though recent work has rescued the magnificent amphitheatre from the drifting sands).

In addition Patara has Turkey’s longest beach, an impressive stretch some 18km long. Though there is a small tourist resort 2km walk from the sea, the beach itself is undeveloped and protected as a prime nesting site for loggerhead turtles, who have returned there every summer for the last 50 years. Saint Nicholas is the patron saint of money problems, the unjustly imprisoned, bootblacks, brides, merchants, repentant thieves and the city of Aberdeen. I’m sure he’d be happy to add endangered sea creatures to the list.

By Michael Gormley