Sharing a bit of Christmas with you all from National Geographic on the origins of Santa Claus.
ANY KID CAN tell you where Santa Claus is from—the North Pole. But his historical journey is even longer and more fantastic than his annual, one-night circumnavigation of the globe.
Every December 6, the faithful celebrate St. Nicholas Day in cities all over the world, with the largest ones taking place in Europe. Images of St. Nicholas vary considerably, but none of them look much like the red-cheeked, white-bearded old man seen everywhere today. One of the most compelling views of the real St. Nick, who lived in the third and fourth centuries, was created not by ancient artists but by using modern forensic facial reconstruction.
Much of her work is necessarily subject to interpretation. The size and shape of the facial muscles that once covered Nicholas’s skull had to be inferred, and the shape of that skull itself was recreated from two-dimensional data. Digital artists added details that were based on best guesses, including the olive-toned skin most common among Greek Mediterraneans like Nicholas, brown eyes, and the gray hair of a 60-year-old man.
“We are bound to have lost some of the level of detail you would get by working from photographs, but we believe this is the closest we are ever going to get to him,” Wilkinson said in the BBC Two feature film of the project entitled The Real Face of Santa.
How did this St. Nicholas turn into the North Pole-dwelling bringer of Christmas gifts? The original saint was a Greek born in the late third century, around 280 A.D. He became bishop of Myra, a small Roman town in modern Turkey. Nicholas was neither fat nor jolly but developed a reputation as a fiery, wiry, and defiant defender of church doctrine during the Great Persecution in 303, when Bibles were burned and priests made to renounce Christianity or face execution.
Nicholas defied these edicts and spent years in prison before the Roman emperor Constantine ended Christian persecution in 313 with the Edict of Milan. Nicholas’s fame lived long after his death (on December 6 in the mid-fourth century, around 343) because he was associated with many miracles, and reverence for him continues to this day independent of his Christmas connection. He is the protector of many types of people, from orphans to sailors to prisoners.
Nicholas rose to prominence among the saints because he was the patron of so many groups. By about 1200, explained University of Manitoba historian Gerry Bowler, author of Santa Claus: A Biography, he became known as a patron of children and magical gift bringer because of two great stories from his life.
In the better-known tale, three young girls are saved from a life of prostitution when young Bishop Nicholas secretly delivers three bags of gold to their indebted father, which can be used for their dowries.
“The other story is not so well known now but was enormously well known in the Middle Ages,” Bowler said. Nicholas entered an inn whose keeper had just murdered three boys and pickled their dismembered bodies in basement barrels. The bishop not only sensed the crime, but resurrected the victims as well. “That’s one of the things that made him the patron saint of children.”
For several hundred years, circa 1200 to 1500, St. Nicholas was the unchallenged bringer of gifts and the toast of celebrations centered around his feast day, December 6. The strict saint took on some aspects of earlier European deities, like the Roman Saturn or the Norse Odin, who appeared as white-bearded men and had magical powers like flight. He also ensured that kids toed the line by saying their prayers and practicing good behavior.