Yes, Virginia, Santa Claus is a Turk

St. Nicholas is depicted in a stained-glass window at Blessed Sacrament Church in Bolton Landing, N.Y. St. Nicholas — a fourth-century bishop from the region of modern-day Turkey, was well known for his generosity.
(CNS photo/Gregory A. Shemitz)

On Sept. 21, 1897, the New York Sun ran an editorial responding to an inquiry from a young reader, who would eventually go on to earn a doctorate from Fordham University, asking if Santa Claus existed. The response read in part: “How dreary would the world be if there were no Santa Claus. It would be as dreary as if there were no Virginias. … Only faith, fancy, poetry, love, romance, can push aside that curtain and view and picture the supernatural beauty and glory beyond. Is it all real? Ah, Virginia, in all the world there is nothing else real and abiding.”

In this era of manufactured crises and finger-pointing, where talking points reverberate around echo chambers untethered to virtually any factual moorings, even Saint Nicholas gets submerged beneath the flood of misinformation and lazy indifference. So I was most happy to stumble upon Martin Ebon’s book-length investigation into the legacy of the saint while in the library over the holiday season. Engrossing as it was, I finished it in one sitting, while enjoying an eggnog iced latte to boot.

I knew Saint Nicholas had some kind of a relationship with Bari in Italy and with someplace named Myre, though I had no idea where that was. (I was aware from visits to Atlantic City that Saint Nicholas of Tolentine was a different person). It turns out our familiar images of the bearded man in red can be traced, through an admittedly circuitous route, back to Turkey at the time of the Constantinian Empire. A young man who would one day become bishop there and whose name means literally the “victory of the people (or laity!)” — nike laos — was renowned for his generosity and holiness. He famously anonymously threw money into a destitute father’s window to prevent his “selling off” one of his three daughters to slavery or prostitution because he couldn’t afford a dowry. Thus, like the barber’s pole, the medic’s caduceus, and the pharmacist’s Rx (from the Latin for “recipe”), pawnbrokers adopted Nicholas’s symbol of three dangling golden orbs or sacks which we still find in their shop windows today.

His connection with the port city of Bari came later, when his relics were “translated” (which may mean moved, inherited, or pilfered) to Southern Italy on May 9 1087, a day still celebrated with festivals there locally.

Tradition holds that Saint Nicholas eventually came to America through our Dutch roots, where Nike-Laos had since become Sinterklaas. Yet, Ebon’s meticulous research sets the record straight. While there may be some loose connection from Manhattan’s New Amsterdam roots to the Old World, the familiar jolly Saint Nick was really an American invention that was mostly used to thumb our noses at the Revolutionary-era British social organizations named for Saint Andrew, Saint David, and Saint George. Americans mockingly founded clubs of their own, one named for Delaware chief Tammanend (which eventually led to Tammany Hall) and another the Sons of Saint Nicholas. Their new patron thus became an anti-royalist symbol of New York much more than a pro-Dutch remembrance of Northern Europe.

The transformation developed further through the contributions in print and artwork of John Pintard, Washington Irving, Clement Clarke Moore and Thomas Nast. Proving that advertising is among the most powerful forces on earth, Coca-Cola’s Haddon Sundblom and R.H. Macy, of department store fame, are ultimately responsible for the jovial and rotund bearded image that comes to mind now, which is decidedly not that of a Byzantine icon of a Turkish bishop.

Today the church of Saint Nicholas in the village of what was once Myre contains little else than an empty sarcophagus where the relics laid before the “translators” showed up from Bari. And yet there are few more culturally recognizable symbols anywhere on earth than the bulbous nose, twinkling eye, and jelly-bowl laugh that have been transformed over the centuries, a gift from Turkey and Coke which we in turn continue to hand on to our children.

Originally from Collingswood, Michael M. Canaris, Ph.D., teaches at Loyola University, Chicago.