Welcome to the David Victor Vector Blog

Welcome to the David Victor Vector blog. This is blog that covers religious observances around the world international affairs and global business. This blog describes religious holidays for most major religions as well as raising issues dealing with globalization, international business ethics, cross-cultural business communication and political events affecting business in an integrated world economy. I look forward your discussion and commentary on these articles and subjects. Enjoy!

Thursday, December 29, 2011

The Real Saint Nick

Saint Nicholas, the Original Santa Claus

In those national traditions where gifts are given in December on Christmas Eve or Christmas Day, there is often an association with some version of a Saint Nicholas (or Santa Claus, the American version of the Dutch version of his name). Traditionally, Saint Nicholas comes bearing gifts to Roman Catholic, Protestant, and Romanian Orthodox children on Christmas Eve. In the United Kingdom, Father Christmas (who in recent decades has begun in some regions to mutate into Santa Claus) does the same thing.

 Many of these customs were shared on this blog in an earlier post at:  

With that in mind, it seemed like it might be interesting to discuss in more detail the story of Saint Nicholas and of Santa Claus.

         A Note on the US Black Santa Claus Controversy

In recent years, Santa Claus has been the subject of a fair amount of controversy in the United States.

Fox News’ Megyn Kelly famously said in a December 2013 segment that, “Santa just is white but this person is just arguing that maybe we should also have a black Santa. But you know, Santa is what he is and just so, you know, we are just debating this because someone wrote about it kids.” http://nation.foxnews.com/2013/12/21/megyn-kelly-addresses-white-santa-comments ).

In December 2016, Minnesota’s Mall of America hired a black Santa after which its owners received hate mail and faced a boycott. Minneapolis Star-Tribune editorial editor Scott Gillespie received offensive comments in such volume raging against the black Santa that he had too shut down the comments section on the subject, tweeting  “Looks like we had to turn comments off on story about Mall of America's first black Santa. Merry Christmas everyone!” https://twitter.com/stribgillespie/status/804532412613087232 )

Addressing the sociological roots of the controversy in December 2016 for the BBC, University of Buffalo history professor Victoria Wolcott explained: "Going to a department store, sitting on Santa's lap, all of that, is very central to a certain kind of post-war, white middle-class identity.” http://www.bbc.com/news/magazine-38231159

Yet the appearance of a black Santa has a history dating long before the 2016 kerfuffle or Kelly’s 2013 proclamation – most without controversy of any form. The city of Pittsburgh has had black Santas on its streets since 1919. As for department stores, the earliest record of a black Santa is the 1943 black Santa at Harlem’s (Jewish-owned) Blumstein’s, followed in 1946 by Blumstein’s in Chicago.

Cincinnati’s Shillitoes Department Store faced the first actual black Santa controversy when it refused requests to hire a black Santa in 1969. Shillitoes (also Jewish) owner Fred Lazarus explained: “This has nothing to do with equality of employment. It just doesn't fit the symbol as kids have known it.” Shilotoes changed its position following protests from civil rights activists and had a black Santa the next year in 1970.

By the 1970’s many more black Santas appeared in various locations across the United States, although the trend lessened by the 1980’s. It was really with the 2013 Megyn Kelly comment that the subject resurfaced as a point of contention and with the 2016 Minnesota backlash that the issue drew race-related reaction.

So who really WAS Saint Nicholas? 

The Historical Saint Nicholas

Santa Claus evolved out of the historical Saint Nicholas, a 4th Century bishop from Asia Minor.    
 Lipnya Church of St. Nicholas icon
Novgorod, Russia
In the Eastern Orthodox tradition, he is known by his Greek name Nikolaos of Myra or Nikolaos ho Thaumaturgos (Nicholas the Maker of Wonders). 

Fortunat Bergant's Saint Nicholas
shows him with his iconic three golden balls

Saint Nicholas in his lifetime frequently left secret gifts for the poor. For example, he often placed coins in the shoes of the needy while they slept. It is, in part, for this reason that one of his canonical symbols is that of three golden balls, three gold coins or three bags of coins. It is also where the old custom of leaving three oranges or golden apples for children on the Feast Day of Saint Nicholas, both as a reminder of his charitable ways and because the fruit is reminiscent of three golden balls.  It is also because of his secret acts of charity that his association with secret giving at Christmas evolved.
Many legends and tales are associated with Saint Nicholas, as related below. In terms of the historical Nicholas, most scholars agree

Saint Nicholas was born in 270 in Patara, Lycia near what is today Gelemiş, Turkey.  Unusual for his time, Nicholas lived a long life.  Unlike most saints of the early Church, he did not die a martyr’s death. Instead, Saint Nicholas lived well into his 70’s and died peacefully in 343.

Nicholas striking Arius at the Council of Nicaea
Soumela Monastery, Trabzon Province, Turkey
Most scholars also agree that he was Bishop of Myra and  that he attended the first ecumenical council – the Council of Nicaea—called by the Emperor Constantine in 325 where he was an ardent opponent of the Arian controversy (named for the North African bishop Arius who asserted that God the Son was subordinate to God the Father). At the assembly, it is believed by many that Nicholas became so enraged that he struck Arius. Also generally held, though with some debate—was that Nicholas was imprisoned after striking Arius at the Council of Nicaea. Many Orthodox Christians believe that he was visited by Jesus and the Virgin Mary while in his cell and given a copy of the Gospels there. Because of this, he was freed.  

Destruction of the Temple of Artemis

Another point generally recognized as historically accurate is that Saint Nicholas destroyed the Temple of Artemis Eleuthera. This temple honored Artemis, who herself had been syncretized by the Greeks from the earlier Anatolian mother goddess Cybele.  A tourist site for Lycian Turkey describes this as:

 Artemis Eleuthera
Lycia's largest and most splendid building.    It was built on large grounds with beautiful gardens and had an inner court defined by columns, an altar and a statue of the goddess.  Not a trace of it remains today, however, since St. Nicholas (the bishop of Myra in the 4th century AD) in his zeal to stamp out paganism in the region, had the temple of Artemis, along with many other temples, completely destroyed. 

No less authoritative a source than former US Secretary of Education William J. Bennett wrote extensively on this in his The True Saint Nicholas: Why He Matters to Christians (Simon & Schuster, 2009). He explains the background to Nicholas’s intolerance for paganism as follows :

Ancient pagan deities posed a stubborn challenge for the bishop of Myra during his ministry. Worship of the Greek gods had been going on for centuries, and Nicholas realized that he must battle the old traditions for the hearts and souls of his people. He no doubt viewed pagan temples as the homes of demons and false gods, and pagan rituals as concoctions of chicanery and black magic.
His chief foe in this regard was the goddess Artemis, daughter of Zeus and sister of Apollo. Artemis was said to be the protector of seafarers, the provider of smooth and profitable voyages. She was also regarded as the goddess of bountiful harvests, the giver of grain. Chapter 19 of the Book of Acts tells how the Apostle Paul’s teaching nearly caused a riot at Ephesus, up the coast from Myra, when the worshippers of Artemis realized that Christianity might overthrow their ancient traditions. Acts reports that, “they were enraged, and cried out, ‘Great is Artemis of the Ephesians!’” (Acts 19{28}

St. Nicolas, Pierre & Germaine Noury, Paris, 1928

 Myra boasted a temple with grand columns surrounding an inner court and a statue of the goddess. Medieval tales of Nicholas’s struggle against pagan customs depict a pitched battle with demons that lived in the temple.
“When Nicholas launched his attack against the temple,” says one account, “he not only destroyed everything that towered aloft, and hurled that to earth, but he uprooted the whole from its very foundations. Indeed, what was the highest, at the very pinnacle of the temple, was embedded in earth, and what was in the earth was impelled into the air.” The demons, powerless to stop the assault, fled their home, shrieking.
(pp. 52-53)

Feast Day of Saint Nicholas

Saint Nicholas died on December 6, 343. As a result, December 6 is now his Feast Day in the Roman Catholic, Eastern Orthodox, Anglican and Lutheran traditions.

St. Nicholas 13th Century fresco
Boyana Church, Sofia, Bulgaria

Following the 1969 calendar revision of the Roman Catholic Church, the Feast Day of Saint Nicholas was made an optional observance; significantly, though, unlike 40 other early saints’ feast days, that of Saint Nicholas was not removed but simply made optional. This decision, moreover, had no effect on the observance of his Feast Day in the various Orthodox churches, where he remains highly ranked among the saints. Similarly, the Roman Catholic deliberations had not effect on the standing of Saint Nicholas day in the Lutheran Church’s official list of festivals and commemorations or the Anglican Church’s official calendar of saints.

Saint Nicholas was recognized as a saint centuries before the schism between the Orthodox and Roman Catholic Churches in 1054. For example, as early as the 500’s, the Byzantine Emperor Justinian I erected a church in honor of St. Nicholas in Constantinople.  Indeed, he is one of the earliest post-Biblical saints, and was considered a saint well before the Church began officially canonizing saints, and there is no official date for his canonization as a result.

Myra, Lycia = Demre, Turkey

Saint Nicholas, as noted before, was the Bishop of Myra, a city on the Mediterranean coast that is now known as Demre, Turkey  From the time of Saint Nicholas all the way until the 1923, Demre had a substantial Greek Orthodox Christian population. Today, though, Demre is almost entirely Moslem, following the forcible population exchange between Greece and Turkey in which Greece expelled its Moslems to Turkey and, in return, Orthodox Christian Greeks in Turkey were moved to Greece.  Despite this, Demre has turned its Greek Orthodoxfavorite son into somewhat of a tourist attraction. This is somewhat ironic as Saint Nicholas utterly destroyed the Temple of Artemis, by far southern Turkey’s greatest attraction of the day.

Church of St. Nicholas ruins at Demre
Demre is still home to the ruins of the Church of Saint Nicholas. This is the site where St. Nicholas was once interred before his remains were moved to Bari, Italy. The church dates to the 6th century, and once had included a full monastery. Like most churches that were not converted into mosques, the Church of Saint Nicholas had fallen into disrepair after the conquest of the Seljuk Turks in the 11th Century. Only in the late 19th Century with funds from Tsar Alexander II of Russia were the ruins partly rehabilitated.

Statue of Santa at Demre, Turkey
Today, the ruins are still largely in disarray but now have become Demre’s main tourist attraction.  Rather incongruously, there is a large statue of Santa Claus set high on a pillar beside the ruins of the church, and Demre today bills itself as the “birthplace of Santa Claus.”  

How Saint Nicholas Became Bishop of Myra

Many legends and tales surround the life of Saint Nicholas. One of these, the story of how Saint Nicholas became the Bishop of Myra, is a unique one.

St. Nicholas installed as Bishop of Myra, St. Etienne Cathedral, Bourges, France, 13th Century
When his predecessor as Bishop of Myra died, a group of other bishops met to determine who should be the next Bishop of Myra. After the bishops had gone to bed for the night, one leader from among the gathered bishops heard a voice that came to him in the dark. The voice told him to watch the doors of the church where the gathered bishops would say the matin prayers the next morning. The voice then instructed him that first person to enter the doors for matin prayers should be the next bishop.

The bishop shared what he had been instructed with the other bishops. They all gathered early the next morning before matin prayers began and watched the door for the earliest person to arrive. That person was Nicholas.

Nicholas the Patron Saint of Many Causes

Saint Nicholas has the distinction of being the patron saint of more causes than any other saint. As is fairly well known from his Christmas association, Saint Nicholas is the patron saint of children. That said, he is also patron saint of sailors, of prisoners, of the wrongly imprisoned, of young women seeking a husband, of pawnbrokers and of many more. In fact, the St. Nicholas Center website lists 111 categories of people for whom Saint Nicholas is the patron saint.

To read the list, please see the center’s link at

Each of these causes has a story attached to it. That said, for this blog, we will look at four of the most well-known of these.

Patron Saint of Children

In addition to his acts of charity to poor children while they slept, Saint Nicholas is patron saint of children due to a miracle that is attributed to him in which he resurrected three children.

 The Coat of Arms of
Valkenswaard, Netherlands
shows St. Nicholas
the three children
The story goes that three children were lost after playing. As it was getting late, they came to the lighted shop of an evil butcher. They knocked on the butcher's door and told him that they were tired, hungry and lost.

The children then asked the butcher if they could come inside to eat and sleep, to which the butcher readily agreed. As the children entered his shop, though, the evil butcher cut them all to pieces with his butcher knife. He then put them in a salting barrel.

Seven years later, the legend recounts, Saint Nicholas appeared to the butcher and demanded that the evil man open his salting barrel. Frightened, the butcher obeyed at once. Saint Nicholas then laid his hands on the salted pieces of the butchered children and suddenly they were made whole again and came back to life. Saint Nicholas then led the children home to their parents, alive and well again.

Since then, Saint Nicholas has been the patron saint of children. In this capacity, he is often shown blessing children in a barrel, as seen in the Coat of Arms of the City of Valkenswaard in the Netherlands (shown above left)

Patron Saint of Prostitutes and the Unmarried

As unlikely as it may seem at first glance, Saint Nicholas’s position for both prostitutes and the unmarried stem from the same story: the poor man and his three unmarried daughters.

In the 4th Century Greek world, if a woman had no dowry, she would almost certainly remained unmarried. It is in this context that the story begins.  In Myra, a very poor man had three daughters. The man was of noble birth but had fallen on very hard times. Since the man was too poor to come up with an acceptable dowry, he was miserable, knowing that his lack of income was destroying any hope for the future for his daughters. The man pawned everything he owned but his economic crisis only deepened, and he soon grew so poor that he could no longer even afford to feed himself and his daughters. Far from providing a dowry for his daughters as they came of age, the man actually had to consider selling them into prostitution as the only means of feeding the family.

 Ambrogio Lorenzetti, Charity of St. Nicholas,
The Louvre, Paris
Saint Nicholas became aware of the poor man’s plight and wanted to help him. He did not, however, want to have the man know who was helping him. The reasons for this vary. It may have been that Saint Nicholas did not want to embarrass the man and thus robbing him of his pride. It may have been that Saint Nicholas was simply too shy. Or it may have been that Nicholas was too humble in spirit and did not want the man to praise him rather than God who had provided Saint Nicholas the means with which to help the poor man in the first place.

Whatever the reason, the assistance was to be kept anonymous.  To do so, Saint Nicholas snuck up to the man’s house in the middle of the night and dropped a purse of gold coins through the window. When the family awoke, they found the gold. This was enough to feed the family for some time and still have enough to make a dowry for the eldest daughter. They all thanked God for this and wanted to know how the money had come to them, but they searched for their benefactor in vain.

 St. Nicholas providing the dowry
Musée de Cluny, Paris
A few days later, Saint Nicholas again snuck up to the man’s house in the middle of the night and tossed a second bag of gold through the window of the man’s house. This time the man heard the chink of the gold hitting the floor and ran to the window to see who had been the source of his help. Yet when he got to the window, there was no sign of Saint Nicholas. The family again rejoiced as there was no enough money to provide a dowry for the second daughter. Still, the man very much wanted to know from whom the gold had come. The man realized now that as the dowry had been left for two daughters of his three daughters, it was likely that the secret visitor would come again to provide for the third. This time, the man set up a chair next to the window where the other two bags of gold had come into his house. He slept fully clothed in the chair by the window each night so that the visitor would not escape unknown again without receiving at least his thanks. As he had anticipated, a few nights later, a third bag of gold coins came through the window in the middle of the night. This time, though, the man was prepared and looked through the window in time to see the Bishop of Myra running down the street away from his house. The man ran out of the house after his benefactor. When he caught up to him, the man threw himself at Saint Nicholas’ feet and attempted to kiss them, but Saint Nicholas refused to allow him to do so. Instead, he told the man to stand up and explained that it was not really Saint Nicholas who had helped the man but rather God who had simply used him as his instrument for doing so.

Waal, Bavaria's Coat of Arms
shows St. Nicholas with three golden balls
In some versions of the story, the saint gives three gold coins, three balls of pure gold or three golden apples. As mentioned earlier, it is because of this that the iconographic symbols of Saint Nicholas are three gold coins, three bags of coins, three golden apples or three golden balls. In recognition of his help of the three unmarried daughters who were saved from a life of prostitution through his help. Saint Nicholas has been the patron saint of prostitutes who wish to stop their profession, and for those who are unmarried because of obstacles in their way.

Patron Saint of Pawnbrokers and Moneylenders

The swindler swearing by image of St. Nicholas
to the pawnbroker (shown here as a Jewish moneylender)
Chartres Cathedral
Saint Nicholas became the patron saint of pawnbrokers long after his lifetime. The story goes that there was a pawnbroker (in many versions of the story, this is a Jewish moneylender) who made a loan to a friend without receiving any goods from the friend as collateral. Instead, the man took an oath in Saint Nicholas’ name to repay the loan to the pawnbroker at a specified date. The date came and went and the man did not repay the debt. When the pawnbroker approached the man to ask why, the (former) friend declared that he did not owe the pawnbroker anything.

The pawnbroker, then, took the man to court. When the hearing before the judge came up, the pawnbroker explained what happened in truth. Meanwhile, the man who had taken the money swore in court that he had given the money back to the pawnbroker. Now it turned out that the man who had taken the money had actually not sworn falsely; instead, he had used a trick to be able to swear in court. The deceitful man had placed the borrowed amount of coins into a hollow cane. He handed the pawnbroker this cane for a moment when he sat down to swear before God that he had returned the money. Technically speaking, the pawnbroker was in possession of the money at the time that the deceitful man swore his oath. Since the pawnbroker had no proof that the money was not returned, it was one man’s word against the other, and the court ruled against the pawnbroker.

The pawnbroker felt very bad and believed that Saint Nicholas had abandoned him. The deceitful man, for his part, took back his cane and walked out of court and away from his debt.  Soon after this, though, the deceitful man grew extremely tired and passed out right in the middle of the road. This happened so suddenly that a horse and wagon, unable to stop in time, ran over the man where he lay. The man’s cane was also run over and the hidden money spilled out onto the ground. Horrified onlookers ran for help and reported what had happened.

Among those who were alerted to what happened were the judge who had ruled in the case and the pawnbroker himself. The judge soon learned that the exact amount of money that the pawnbroker had claimed was owed to him had been hidden in the cane; he therefore returned this money to the pawnbroker as it was rightfully his.

The pawnbroker, for his part, prayed to Saint Nicholas. He did not pray to thank Saint Nicholas for returning the money.  Surely, he prayed, this turn of events had occurred through Saint Nicholas’ intervention. Now he prayed that Saint Nicholas intervene to save the life of his friend. With that the friend revived and became an honest man thereafter.

Because of this story, Saint Nicholas has been the patron saint of pawnbrokers ever since. Throughout the middle ages and even today, the sign of the pawnbroker is that of the three gold balls of Saint Nicholas. Indeed, the logo of the UK and the US National Pawnbroker Associations (shown here at left and right respectively) both prominently display the three golden balls of Saint Nicholas.

Patron Saint of Mariners and Sailors

From Les Belles Heures du duc de Berry
Many stories surround the origin of Nicholas as patron saint of mariners and sailors. One story goes that, as a young man, Nicholas had traveled to Alexandria to study. On his return voyage, a great storm overtook the ship and a sailor became tangled in the riggings of the sails. He was about to drown when Nicholas saved him by disentangling him from the rigging. Another story has Saint Nicholas attending the Council of Nice. Far from there, a terrible storm broke out and catching in its midst a ship from Nicholas’ home of Myra. The men prayed to the holy man to intercede for them, and with that, Nicholas miraculously appeared to them and guided them through the storm.

A less religiously based theory of some scholars is simply that Saint Nicholas took the role of the ancient sea god Poseidon. Since the ancient Greek world depended on seafaring for much of its commerce and sustenance, once Christianity had made the worship of Poseidon unacceptable, Greeks turned to their patron saint to fill the need. As the scholar Robert Elsie notes, many of the ancient Greek temples to Poseidon were rededicated in honor of Saint Nicholas.:
In Greece, he took over the role of sea god Poseidon and, as such, a number of temples along the coast and on the Ionian islands were renamed after him. He is thus the patron saint of sailors and is associated with water. p. 41
It should be noted that this position is fairly widespread, even appearing in some official church-sanctioned writings. As the website of St. Nicholas Church.net (a Romanian Orthodox Church of New York) writes:

In centuries of Greek folklore, Nicholas was seen as ‘The Lord of the Sea,’ often described by modern Greek scholars as a kind of Christianized Poseidon.

In accordance with his association with seafarers, Saint Nicholas is often symbolized by a ship or an anchor.

Nicholas the Patron Saint of Many Places


Silver ship tamatas offered beneath a
Greek Orthodox icon of St. Nicholas

Saint Nicholas is the national patron saint of Greece.

Greek sailors and fishermen customarily carry an icon of Saint Nicholas on their ships. Many light votive candles in front of the icon to request safe passage from Saint Nicholas, who is believed to be able to calm rough seas and assist crews through storms. If the ship runs into trouble, the captains frequently will promise Saint Nicholas that they will bring a tamata to church if they return home safely.  A tamata is a small votive offering. Those offered to Saint Nicholas in such cases are carved of wood or made of silver or gold made especially as a votive offering.


Saint Nicholas is also one of the national patron saints of Russia.  Each year since the collapse of the USSR, approximately 6,000 Russian Orthodoz faithful honor Saint Nicholas in a three-day (within the period of June 3-8) crucession from Kirov to Velikoretsky. A crucessional is a processional following an icon. In this case the icon they follow is one of St. Nicholas that miraculously revealed itself to the Russian peasant  Semyon Agalakov beside the Velikaya River in 1383. After this miracle, the area of Vilikoretsky was settled and has been considered a holy village to Russian Orthodox believers ever since.

Saint Nicholas Crucession to Vilikoretsky


Saint Nicholas Procession, Nancy, Lorraine
In the Roman Catholic tradition, Saint Nicholas is patron saint of the region of Lorraine in France. Every year at the beginning of December, the capital of LorraineNancy – holds two-day celebration honoring Saint Nicholas. Annually 100,000 people or more attend the accompanying
parade through the city.

For more on Nancy’s Saint Nicholas celebration, including a video clip, please see http://www.santatelevision.com/christmas/nancy-st-nicholas-celebrations/


Saint Nicholas is the unofficial patron saint of both Roman Catholic and Orthodox Christians alike in predominantly Moslem Albania. Accordingly, there are many religious objects and site associated
13th Century Monastery of St. Nicholas
Delvine, Albania

with Saint Nicholas throughout the country. Among the most notable of these is the Byzantine era Monastery of Saint Nicholas at Delvine, dating back to the 1200's.

Interestingly, Saint Nicholas' Feast Day is widely celebrated by Christians and Moslems alike. As Robert Elsie describes:

The feast of Saint Nicholas on December 6, a pre-Christian feast observed in Albania by Christians and Muslims, celebrated the return of the souls of the dead and was commemorated by the slaughtering and roasting of a sheep on a spit, fërlik. For this feast, the animal was kept in the house for weeks in advance. In Hoti, Gruda and Kastrati, the feast of Saint Nicholas lasted a whole week. It was custom in the north to light a candle and to leave the door open on the eve of Saint Nicholas to let the saint and the spirits of the dead into the house so that they might take part in the feast. The owner of the house would raise his glass of raki and say, "May the Night of Saint Nicholas help us!" Albanian "Nata e Shënkollit na nihmoftë!" In some areas, three candles were also lit to the mythological juds so that they would not do any harm. The longer the candle burnt, the greater the prosperity would be for the house in question. One curse among the northern tribes was, "May the devil blow out your Saint Nicholas candle." The feuding Shkreli often concluded a besa, i.e., a cease-fire, to facilitate celebrations during the feast of their patron saint. It was also tradition among many tribes in the north for feuding families to meet on Saint Nicholas Day in order to reconcile and put an end to their feuds.
– Robert Elsie, “The Christian Saints of Albania,” Balkanistica13 (2000), p.42.
Sicily and Apulia
Finally, Saint Nicholas patron saint of two regions in Italy. First, he is one of the patron saints of Sicily along with Saints Andrew Avellino, Joseph and Rosalia. It is in the region of Apulia, though, where Saint Nicholas is most revered as patron saint.

Tomb of St. Nicholas, Basilica di San Nicola, Bari
 This is because his relics have been housed in Apulia’s capital city Bari in the Basilica of Saint Nicholas since 1087 after they were brought there following the Saracen conquest of Myra. It should be noted that in the Orthodox Christian tradition, the relics of Saint Nicholas are not seen as being taken to Bari for safekeeping, but rather, stolen from their proper home in the East.
Including Bari, Saint Nicholas is patron saint of over 100 cities, including such major cities as Amsterdam, Holland;Baranquilla, Colombia; Limerick, Ireland (with Saint Munchin); Liverpool, England; and (with eight other patron saints) Naples, Italy. While this list may not be complete, what follows is a list of those either officially designated by either the Roman Catholic or one of the Eastern Orthodox churches or that has Saint Nicholas or his symbols in its coat of arms.

Of these cities, 40 cities bear his name in 14 different countries.

France has by far the most villages and cities named for Saint Nicholas. Of the 20 in France, five of are located in Upper Normandy alone:

Ø      Saint-Nicolas, Pas-de-Calais
Ø      Saint-Nicolas-d’Aliermont, Haute-Normandie
Ø      Saint-Nicolas-aux-Bois, Picardie
Ø      Saint-Nicolas-d'Attez, Haute-Normandie
Ø      Saint-Nicolas-de-Bliquetuit, Haute-Normandie
Ø      Saint-Nicolas-de-Bourgueil, Val de Loire 
Ø      Saint-Nicolas-de-la-Balerme, Aquitaine
Ø      Saint-Nicolas-de-la-Grave, Midi-Pyrénées
Ø      Saint-Nicolas-de-la-Haie, Haute-Normandie
Ø      Saint-Nicolas-de-Macherin, Rhône-Alpes
Ø      Saint-Nicolas-de-Pierrepont, Basse-Normandie
Ø      Saint-Nicolas-de-Port, Lorraine
Ø      Saint-Nicolas-de-Redon, Pays-de-Loire
Ø      Saint-Nicolas-de-la-Taille, Haute-Normandie
Ø      Saint-Nicolas-des-Biefs, Auvergne
Ø      Saint-Nicolas-du-Pélem, Bretagne
Ø      Saint-Nicolas-du-Tertre, Bretagne
Ø      Saint-Nicolas-la-Chapelle de l’Aube, Champagne
Ø      Saint-Nicolas-la-Chapelle, Savoie
Ø      Saint-Nicolas-lès-Cîteaux, Bourgogne
In addition to those French cities named for Saint Nicholas, he appears on the coat of arms of three towns in the Alsace: Ergersheim, Voegtlinshoffen and Wingersheim. Saint Nicholas also appeared on the coat of arms for the commune of Mardyck in the Nord-Pas-de-Calais, although that coat of arms has ceased to exist since 1989  Mardyck merged with Dunquerque.

Those cities outside France named for Saint Nicholas are

1.      Sankt Nikolai an der Donau, Austria
2.      Sankt Nikolai ob Drassling, Austria
3.      Sankt Nikolai im Sausal, Austria
Coat of Arms of
Sint-Niklaas, Belgium shows him
saving the three children
4.      Niklasdorf, Austria
5.      Sint-Niklaas, Belgium (in East Flanders)
6.      São Nicolau, Brazil
7.      Sveti Nikola, Bulgaria
8.      Saint-Nicolas, Italy (in Valle d’Aosta)
9.      Sveti Nikola, Macedonia
10.    Siġġiewi, Malta
11.    San Nicolás, Mexico  (where three cities bear his name, one in Oaxaca, one in Jalisco and one in Taumaulipos)
12.   Sint Nicolaasga, the Netherlands
13.   São Nicolau-Porto, Portugal
14.   São Nicolau Santarém, Portugal
15.   San Nicolás, Peru
16.   San Nicolas, the Philippines (where two cities bear his name, one in Ilocos Norte and one in Pangesinan)
17.   Saint Nicholas, Wales

Note: Sankt Niklaus of Switzerland is actually named for Saint Nicholas of Flue.

The remaining cities for whom Saint Nicholas is patron saint are listed below.  I have broken these down by country or region to make it easier to read. Also, I have tried to include only those cities that have a large enough population. There are several more (for example, the ancient town of Oľšavica, Slovakia that, though dating to the 14th century, was too small with under 500 residents).

In Austria:
  1. Aich
     St. Nicholas on the Coat of Arms
    of Westendorf, Austria
  2. Dorfbeueren
  3. Kirchheim in Innkreis
  4. Neuhofen in Innkreis
  5. Ratten
  6. Rechberg
  7. Riegersberg
  8. Saalbach 
  9. Stallhofen
  10. Traboch
  11. Westendorf

                                In Germany
  1. Albaching, Bavaria
  2. The Vrees Coat of Arms
    shows St. Nicholas' mitre
    and his crozier initialed "SN"
  3. Altenberg, Saxon y
  4. Duchroth, Rheinland-Pfalz
  5. Herzlake, Niedersachsen
  6. Impfingen, Baden-Württemberg
  7. Vrees, Niedersachsen
  8. Waal, Bavaria
  9. Wald-Allgäu, Bavaria
  10. Zepfenhan, Baden-Württemberg

In Italy
  1. Avolasca, Piemonte
  2. Bardolino, Veneto
  3. Bari, Apulia
  4. Carpino, Puglia
  5. Capistrano, Calabria 
  6. Cardinale, Calabria
  7. Cammarata, Sicily
  8. Creazzo, Veneto (with Saints Mark the Evangelist and Ulderic)
  9. Duronia, Molise 
  10. Fossalto, Molise
  11. Gagliato, Calabria
  12. Genazzano, Lazio
  13. La Thuile, Valle d’Aosta
  14. Lecco, Lombardia
  15. Mazzano Romano, Lazio
  16. Mentana, Lazio
  17. Merano, Trentino-Alto Adige/Südtirol
  18. Naples, Campania (one of nine patron saints)
  19. Carpino Coat of Arms
    with St. Nicholas
  20. Sassari, Sardinia

In the Netherlands
  1. Amsterdam
  2. Baarn
  3. Broekheuzen
  4. Bunnik
  5. Sinter Claes
    St. Nicolaaskerk, Amsterdam

  6. Haps
  7. Helvoirt
  8. Odijk
  9. Valkenswaard

In Eastern Europe
    Komiža, Croatia Coat of Arms 
    with St. Nicholas, ship and anchor
  1. Bošáca, Slovakia
  2. Chrzanow, Poland
  3. Dánszentmiklós, Hungary
  4. Husinec, Czech Republic
  5. Liptovský Mikuláš, Slovakia
  6. Kaunas, Lithuania
  7. Komiža, Croatia
  8. Laka, Poland
  9. Lehota pod Vtáčnikom, Slovakia
  10. Lutsk, Ukraine
  11. Mezin, Czech Republic
  12. Miklavž na Dravskem polju, Slovenia
  13. Mikulov, Czech Republic
  14. Stará Ľubovňa, Slovakia

In other countries
St. Nicholas on the Coat of Arms
of Lidköping
, Sweden  
  1. Barranquilla, Colombia  
  2. Beit Jala, Palestinian Territory
  3. Brentwood & Chiswick, England
  4. Cas Concos, Spain
  5. Is-Siggiewi, Malta
  6. Lausen, Switzerland
  7. Limerick, Ireland (with Saint Munchin)
  8. Liverpool, England
  9. Lidköping, Sweden
  10. Niederburchsiten, Switzerland
  11. Nova Sintra, Cape Verde
  12. Portsmouth, England (with Saint Thomas Beckett)
  13. Reinach, Switzerland
  14. Tuggen, Switzerland

From Saint Nicholas to Santa Claus

There really is very little connection between the historic or religious figure of Saint Nicholas and the modern Santa Claus that has become associated with him in North America and, increasingly, around the world. Two streams have flown together to form the outpouring of the current Santa Claus tradition: one pagan and one commercial.

Irony of Pagan Ties

It is one of the great ironies that a man who is arguably best known for his unwavering intolerance for paganism is today perhaps the Christian figure most closely tied to pagan traditions. As a preface to what those influences are, it is useful to keep in mind that Saint Nicholas' single central historical action was the destruction of the pagan Temple of Artemis.

Taliban destruction
of the Bamyan Buddhas, 2001
To put this in perspective, the traditions that we have today about Santa Claus as beloved (as they are) have been around less than 150 years, while the cult of Artemis had been around for at least 800 years in some form or other at the time that Nicholas attacked the cult. The Temple of Artemis at Myra was considered one of the four great temples of ancient Greek culture in Asia Minor, and was as much admired as an artistic and architectural achievement as it was a place of worship. When Nicholas destroyed the Temple of Artemis, he was unmoved by any please for tolerance or for even recognition of its artistic and cultural importance. In modern times, this  would closely parallel the destruction in 2001 of the 6th Century AD Bamyan Buddhas by the Taliban's Mullah Omar, despite pleas from around the world to save the massive statues as priceless cultural treasures. In both the case of Saint Nicholas and of Mullah Omar, the arguments were invalid. One can never tolerate paganism, as they interpreted the respective monuments they destroyed as being.

Yet as history would have it, this saint who was so intolerant of paganism would himself be transmutated to absorb multiple pagan traditions.

Pagan Traditions Associated with Saint Nicholas in His Own Name

As discussed above, Saint Nicholas for many sailors and fishermen in the Balkans and Eastern Mediterranean region took on the characteristics of the pagan sea god Poseidon. He became protector of ships and guarantor of safe travels. Many of Poseidon's temples were repurposed as churches dedicated to Saint Nicholas.

Saint Nicholas in some Eastern Orthodox traditions is also associated with the harvest. As his Feast Day marks the beginning of winter, Saint Nicholas now receives the prayers previously associated with the end of the growing season associated previously with Artemis Eleuthera -- the very goddess whose shrine he destroyed.

At least in both of these cases, the former pagan traditions have been clearly Christianized. The prayers are to Saint Nicholas as intercessor to God.

Pagan Traditions Associated with Saint Nicholas as Santa Claus

Unlike those repurposed pagan traditions associated with Saint Nicholas as a saint, the associations with Santa Claus are not clearly repurposed at all. For believers, there is a Saint Nicholas. For no adult does Santa Claus actually exist. Santa is not a religious figure, but directly a mythic figure.

What follows is a checklist of points corresponding a modern Santa tradition to an ancient pagan one:

  •  Santa rides through the sky on Christmas Eve.
  • The Norse chief god Odin (below right) rode through the sky on a hunting trip on the eve of the pagan festival of Yule at the Winter solstice.

Sinter Claes on his white horse

Odin on Sleipnir

  • Santa has eight reindeer known by the clatter of their hooves. The Dutch version of Santa Claus  -- Sinter Claes  -- from whom the English Santa Claus gets his name still rides through the sky on a white horse (as shown above at left) and not with reindeer. 
  • Odin rode on Sleipnir, his eight-legged steed known by the clatter of its hooves.   
  • Santa enters houses through the chimney.
  • Odin entered the house through fireholes. In Italy, by the way, the gift-bearing witch Belfana (herself of non-Christian origin) is covered with soot from coming thourh chimneys.
  • Santa has helpers who are elves, and is sometimes considered a giant elf himself.
  • In Nordic paganism, the fireplace was the center of prosperity and was looked after by household elves. As a side note, roughly half of the population of Iceland today does not deny the existence of elves and trolls. 
  • Children on Christmas Eve leave carrots for Santa's reindeer and cookies for Santa.
  • Children on Yule's Eve left carrots and root vegetables for Odin's steed Sleipnir (though no cookies of Odin). Odin would, in turn, leave the children sweets and small gifts as thanks for feeding his steed.
  • Santa is "nicknamed"  Old Saint Nick.
  • The demon variously called Neck, Nikke or Nokke was a German and Scandinavian evil spirit that stole children away in the middle of the night. When the area was Christianized, oone of the names for the devil was (and still is) Old Nick in the northern European countries (including England).
  • Santa always has a long, white beard.
  • Odin was symboblized by his long, white beard.
  • Santa rides in a sleigh.
  • The Norse thunder god visited homes in a sleigh or chariot drawn by a goat. Note that in Sweden today, the gnome Tomte still delivers gifts to children on Christmas Eve in a sleigh or cart drawn by the Julbok or Christmas goat.
While there are pre-Christian traditions associated with many other aspects of modern Christmas traditions (such as tree and plant worship, with specific myths tied to pine trees and mistletoe), these are the ones directly tied to Santa. For more on the many pre-Christian traditions subsumed into modern Christmas traditions, please see the Wiccan explanations at


Please note that there are many diatribes and rants against Christmas from multiple perspectives both Christian and non-Christian. I suggest these sources as they are relatively neutral, non-Christian sources. That said, I personally emphasize here that I have no position whatsoever here on the correctness or incorrectness of Christmas observances.

 Commercial Traditions Associated with Saint Nicholas as Santa Claus

Santa is a large man, with a fat belly, white beard and (until the last decade or so) smoked a pipe. Santa wears black boots, black belt, red clothing with white fur trim.   This is a fairly modern rendition with virtually nothing to do with the original Saint Nicholas.

Clement Clarke Moore
The earliest version of Santa with much resemblance to his modern image comes from the poem came long before Thomas Nast, though. This was in the famous "Night Before Christmas" poem written by Clement Clarke Moore in 1823, which he wrote to shift celebration to Christmas Eve and thus avoid widespread Protestant objections to objections to lesss than aPurtiatn festivities on Christmas itself.  He published the poem anonymously to avoid criticism. The poem describes Santa as follows.

His eyes — how they twinkled! His dimples: how merry,
His cheeks were like roses, his nose like a cherry;
His droll little mouth was drawn up like a bow,
And the beard of his chin was as white as the snow;
The stump of a pipe he held tight in his teeth,
And the smoke it encircled his head like a wreath.
He had a broad face, and a little round belly
That shook when he laugh'd, like a bowl full of jelly

 In terms of dress, he was nowhere near the modern image, although he did have fur:
He was dress'd all in fur, from his head to his foot,
And his clothes were all tarnish'd with ashes and soot...
Significantly, Santa in the poem was not wearing red, did not have black boots and was a tiny elf with miniature reindeer:
When, what to my wondering eyes should appear,
But a miniature sleigh, and eight tiny reindeer,
With a little old driver, so lively and quick,
I knew in a moment it must be St. Nick.

The tradition of Santa in his modern form comes from the Coca-Cola Company. As Coca-Cola proudly relates on its home website, this comes from the
famous Coca-Cola Santa Claus. Starting in 1931, magazine ads for Coca-Cola featured St. Nick as a kind, jolly man in a red suit. Because magazines were so widely viewed, and because this image of Santa appeared for more than three decades, the image of Santa most people have today is largely based on our advertising. http://www.thecoca-colacompany.com/heritage/cokelore_santa.html

Coca-Cola's first Santa  
painted by Fred Mizen, 1930 

The creator of the first Santa Coke ad was Fred Mizen. This was displayed in the Famous Barr Company in St. Louis, Missouri in 1930. The painting was then reproduced with great success in December 1930 in The Saturday Evening Post.

Before 1930, Santa was more traditionally depicted as a very small elf and as either wearing a bishop's robes or wearing a hunter's hat.

Fred Mizen's first Coca-Cola Santa, was loosely based instead on a Harper's Weekly series of Santa deptictions published by the cartoonist Thomas Nast beginning in 1862.
Nast's first Santa (shown in red circle), 1862



Nast Santa, 1870

Nast's cartoons showed a Santa-like elf that supported the North in the American Civil War. The elf was not particularly a common image for Santa. Nast's elf originally wore a tan coat and was very small. Over the next 30 years, Nast continued to draw his Santa as a regular cartoon and in time he grew in size and his coat gradually took on more color until the elf's coat was eventually a red one. By 1870. Nast's Santa began to look like our modern Santa conception.

Thomas Nast's Santa, 1890

For 1890, Nast's Santa became jolly as well, and it is this version that was to become the basis of  the Coca Cola Santa. Nast's Santa was the inspiration for the Coke campaigns. As the Coca-Cola website explains:
Though some people believe the Coca-Cola Santa wears red because that is the Coke® color, the red suit comes from Nast's interpretation of St. Nick.http://www.thecoca-colacompany.com/heritage/cokelore_santa.html
Following on this success, Coca-Cola hired the D'Arcy Advertising agency to create an ad campaign for the following Christmas season.  The agency hired Michigan-born illustrator Haddon Sundbloom to create the first of these ads. Sundbloom, in turn, relied on the Clement Clarke Moore poem and combined it with Mizen's department store Santa. Sundbloom's Santa became the first of the ongoing series of Coca-Cola Christmas advertising campaigns, and with that, the present conception of Santa Claus.

Coca-Cola, by the 1920's was a popular drink but was generally viewed as a summer drink only. In an effort to give the cola a winter association, Coca-Cola marketing executives hit on the notion of the Christmas Santa campaign with the slogan "Thirst knows no season." The modern image of Santa has been essentially unchanged in over 75 years.

Concluding Remarks

Christmas is an important and wonderful time of year for Christians of all sorts of persuasions. This blog is meant only to be informative. No position in this blog truly reflects my own as much as it is my attempt to -- as neutrally as possible -- provide some background on Saint Nicholas as part of understanding the history of the season. If you disagree, please do keep my good will in mind. If you have a strong point of view, please keep my good will in mind.

Merry Christmas!
Want to Learn More?

William J. Bennett, The True Saint Nicholas: Why He Matters to Christians (Simon & Schuster, 2009).

Catholic Online, "Saint Nicholas," http://www.catholic.org/saints/saint.php?saint_id=371

Robert Elsie, “The Christian Saints of Albania,” Balkanistica13 (2000), p.35-57.

Full Home Divinity, "St. Nicholas of Myra," http://fullhomelydivinity.org/articles/advent%20saints.htm

In-Sect, "Coca-Cola Did Not Invent the Modern Santa Claus," http://www.in-sect.com/article/coca-cola-did-not-invent-the-modern-santa-claus

Charles W. Jones, Saint Nicholas of Myra, Bari, and Manhattan: Biography of a Legend  (University of Chicago Press) 1978.

Father Looker, "St. Nicholas: No Jolly Old Elf," The Hilltop Shepherd's Watch website, December 6, 2011: http://hilltopshepherd.wordpress.com/2011/12/06/st-nicholas-no-jolly-old-elf/
Ontario Consultants on Religious Tolerance, "Santa Claus -- St. Nicholas," http://www.religioustolerance.org/santa1.htm

Orthodox America, "St. Nicholas," http://www.roca.org/OA/5/5m.htm
Saint Nicholas Antiochian Orthodox Church, "Life of Saint Nicholas," http://www.stnicholasar.org/stnick.html

Saint Nicholas Center website, http://www.stnicholascenter.org/pages/home/

SaintNicholasChurch.net http://www.stnicholaschurch.net/html_frames/pages/historic.htm

Brian Wheeler, "The secret history of black Santa," BBC News Magazine, December 16, 2016, .” http://www.bbc.com/news/magazine-38231159

Clipart Sources

Fortunat Bergant's Saint Nicholas (1799) from the National Gallery of Slovenia: http://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Fortunat_Bergant_-_Sv._Miklav%C5%BE.jpg

Nicholas striking Arius at the Council of Nicaea, Soumela Monastery, Trabzon Province, Turkey: http://roadsfromemmaus.org/2011/03/02/in-defense-of-dogma/

Les Belles Heures du duc de Berry at the Cloisters, Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York: http://www.stnicholascenter.org/pages/art/?category_id=5&p=1&n=29

Ambrogio Lorenzetti, Charity of Saint Nicholas, Louvre, Paris: http://www.stnicholascenter.org/pages/art/?category_id=3&p=2&n=29

13th Century Monastery of St. Nicholas, Delvine, Albania: Wikimapia: http://wikimapia.org/13494553/Saint-Nicholas-Monastery

Sinter Claes, St. Nicolaaskerk, Amsterdam: My own photo.

Komiža, Croatia Coat of Arms:  http://public.carnet.hr/fame/descr/hr-st1.html

Lidköping, Sweden Coat of Arms: http://www.ngw.nl/int/zwe/l/lidkopin.htm

Santa under pagan traditions heading: http://www.clipartguide.com/_small/1552-0911-3013-1819.jpg

Thomas Nast 1870 Santa: http://www.in-sect.com/article/coca-cola-did-not-invent-the-modern-santa-claus

Thomas Nast 1892 Santa: http://www.sonofthesouth.net/Thomas_Nast/Nast_Civil_War_Christmas.jpg
Thomas Nast 1890 Santa: http://4.bp.blogspot.com/-qCUoX3wSuPw/TvQ-gSW4FbI/AAAAAAAABfY/LZUHTK_X9Ng/s1600/Nast%2BSanta%2B1890.jpg