Editor's note: This article is part of a series answering religious questions. Each week, we will answer one submitted faith question. This week's question was not submitted but was a timely divergence. To send a submission, visit timesfreepress.com/religionquestions or email firstname.lastname@example.org.
Question: Who was St. Nick? And, how did he become Santa Claus?
The answer to the question, in short, is he was an early Christian saint who became the popular Christmas icon because of public drunkenness.
St. Nicholas was born in the late third century, between 260 and 280 CE, in the East Medditerranean. Even though he was not a priest, he was elected bishop of Myra, in modern Turkey, and was known for being a strong defender of the Christian faith against Roman persecution. There is little that can be confirmed about his life, but St. Nicholas was known as a gift-giver who looked out for people in distress.
The most well-known story of his life involves St. Nicholas giving bags of gold to three young women who were going to become prostitutes because of their indebted father. The money was used for their dowries in marriage.
St. Nicholas died in 343 and his annual feast day, Dec. 6, is widely believed to be the day he died. Fragments of his skeleton, often credited with bringing miracles, were spread around Europe during the Middle Ages, which helped spread his story. During this time, St. Nicholas was seen as the bringer of gifts, especially during the winter season, according to National Geographic.
Dutch immigrants brought the legend of St. Nicholas to the Americas. While Martin Luther did away with the idea of Catholic saints during the Reformation, he continued the practice of gift-giving, but instead inserted baby Jesus as the bringer of presents. After the American Revolution, Americans wanted to distinguish themselves from the English so they readopted images similar to St. Nicholas for giving gifts, said Carol Myers, editor at the St. Nicholas Center.
However, in the 19th century, Christmas in America was a rowdy day. Drunken men and public disorders were common during the holiday when the harvest was over and people were not working as much, Myers said. The New York Historical Society, along with writers Washington Irving and Clement Clarke Moore, began reinventing the winter holiday to make it more family friendly. Artist renderings of the Santa Claus descriptions by Irving and Moore in widely read publications such as Harper's Weekly cemented the image of St. Nicholas as a jolly man.
While Santa Claus is now a cultural icon in America, the legend of St. Nicholas continues to teach important lessons, like gift-giving being more important than receiving and that need is more important than greed, Myers said.
"Nicholas is a model for contemporary living, showing us how to live bringing justice to the oppressed," she said.
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