Today is St. Nicolas Day. Cheers to the Jolly Old Elf and kudos to Claire Suddath for the following bio…
Santa Claus doesn’t talk about it very often, but he’s actually Turkish. The world’s most famous toymaker has had a diverse career — that’s what happens when you stick around for over 1,700 years — and has dabbled in everything from raising the dead to working at the mall. A timeline of St. Nick’s illustrious life:
circa 280 A.D.Nicholas is born in Patara, Lycia — part of modern day Turkey. Like others of the Emperor Constantine generation, he enters a life of religious servitude. He works his way up from abbot to the archbishop of Myra — a nearby town — and gets his first nickname: Nicholas of Myra.
325 A.D. Nicholas attends the First Council of Nicaea and helps create the Nicene Creed, which millions upon millions of Sunday School children will later memorize. Tip: children who mention this in their annual letter to Santa receive an average of 3 extra toys.
330 A.D. When a father doesn’t have enough money for his three daughters’ dowries, dooming them, apparently, to forced prostitution, Nicholas leaves three bags of gold outside the girls’ home (or, according to a different version of the story, in their shoes) to keep them from having to pull an Ashley Alexandra Dupré. This is one of the few stories based on some sort of historical record and it explains Nicholas’ reputation as a gift-giver.
320-340 A.D. Nicholas becomes famous for performing great miracles. Once he saves a ship from a terrible storm by calming the waves. Another time, he flies through the air to return a kidnapped boy. And most impressive of all, he discovers a triple homicide and brings the victims — three children who had been chopped into bits and stored in pickle jars — back to life. Compared to this, making an Xbox by hand is probably child’s play.
Dec. 6, 343 A.D. Nicholas dies and is buried in Myra.
6th Century A.D. Nicholas becomes a saint. The Catholic Church had not yet regulated its canonization procedure so it’s hard to tell exactly when he is sainted. Nicholas is a very popular saint, especially in Europe. He becomes the patron of more objects and places than any other saint (except maybe Mary), although his primary role is as a guardian of children.
1087 Some Italian sailors steal Nicholas’ remains and transfer them to Bari, Italy. Nicholas likes his new home — well, he doesn’t complain — and his tomb becomes a major pilgrimage site.
The next several hundred years St. Nicholas’s “name day,” Dec. 6, coincides with the end of harvest and slaughter season in many European countries and becomes a favorite holiday to observe, especially in Holland, where he is known as “Sinterklaas.” Kids leave their shoes out in the hopes that he will bring them a present. Nicholas has perfected his ability to tell naughty from nice by this time: Good children get a toy or candy; bad children receive a switch (with which they can be beaten).
16th & 17th centuries Puritanism sweeps England and America. Saints fall out of favor. Many countries stop observing St. Nicholas Day — excepting Holland. The Dutch are really into shoe gifts.
1659-1681 No-fun Puritans fire the first volley in the war on Christmas, making the holiday illegal in Massachusetts.
1809 New York Historical Society founder John Pintard declares St. Nicholas to be the patron saint of New York City. To back up his friend’s claim, Historical Society member Washington Irving publishes a History of New York, which includes a story about Nicholas — something about the Dutch and “New Amsterdam” and the fact that they’re still leaving gifts in children’s shoes.
1810 No one really celebrates Saint Nicholas Day in New York, but they do celebrate Christmas. The New York Historical Society publishes a broadside that features a picture of the newly declared patron saint delivering gifts to children during the Christmas season. Nicholas still looks like a saint — he wears a priestly robe and has a halo around his bald head.
1821 Nicholas delivers presents on Christmas Eve for the very first time. An anonymous poem calls him “Santeclaus” and describes a sleigh pulled by one reindeer.
1822 Clement Clark Moore writes a poem for his children, beginning with the iconic lines, “‘Twas the night before Christmas.” Within one reading, Nicholas shortens his name to Nick, gains weight, starts smoking and adopts seven more reindeer (probably to pull his excess weight). He embarks on his first breaking-and-entering spree.
1841 The nickname “Santa Claus” has been growing in popularity, so St. Nick adopts it when he greets thousands of children at a Philadelphia department store. He also appears in newspaper advertisements around this time, urging people to buy Christmas presents.
1863Well-known Harper’s Weekly cartoonist Thomas Nast — who also popularized the Uncle Sam image — draws a red-coated, white-bearded Santa Claus for the very first time. Later Nast drawings will reveal Santa’s workshop and home at the North Pole.
1889 Santa Claus gets married.
1897 New York Sun editor Francis Church answers a young reader’s letter with the phrase, “Yes, Virginia, there is a Santa Claus.”
1924 Santa takes his first ride in the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade.
1931 Artist Haddon Sundblom draws a round-faced, red-nosed Santa Claus for a Coca Cola ad.
1934 Santa makes a list and checks it twice.
1939 Santa adopts Rudolph — the creation of a Montgomery Ward store employee
1947 Santa Claus performs miracles on 34th Street
1952 Santa kisses Jimmy Boyd’s mother underneath the mistletoe.
1969 The Catholic Church overhauls its liturgical calendar by de-sainting over 200 people and making the celebration of 92 others, including St. Nicholas, optional.
1979 An elderly woman is run over by one of Santa’s reindeer. No charges are filed.
1995 Santa Claus gets his own website.