The man behind the beard


Every Christmas Eve, children go to bed eagerly anticipating a visit from Santa Claus. This merry gentleman is purported to visit the home of every good girl and boy, delivering gifts and cheer along the way.

Before the modern evolution of Santa Claus lived a very real and generous individual named Nicholas. In the third century, Nicholas served as the Bishop of Myrna in present-day Turkey. He had a reputation for secret gift-giving, believing that giving should be done secretly and sacrificially in Jesus Christ’s name rather than one’s own.

Stories tell of Nicholas paying the dowry for poor daughters to enable them to get married. He reportedly put coins in the shoes of those who left them out for him. It is believed Nicholas helped to restore the hope of hundreds of people in his community, making him a beloved and revered Bishop. Throughout his ministry, Nicholas fervently shared his life and fortune with others.

Nicholas continued to be revered and commemorated by many Christians even after his death. His charity and unselfish works helped inspire generations of the faithful, and he eventually was named the patron saint of everyone from merchants to sailors to pawnbrokers.

No one really knows what St. Nicholas looked like. But in 2005, a forensic laboratory in England reviewed historical data and photographs of the remains taken from St. Nicholas’ grave in the 1950s. Researchers concluded that he was a small man, perhaps no more than five feet in height, with a broken nose.

This image certainly does not fit with the robust frame and other imagery awarded St. Nicholas in more modern years. St. Nicholas is believed to be the inspiration for Santa Claus, which was a name taken from the Dutch Sinterklaas, a contracted form of Sint Nicolass, or St. Nicholas.

Tales of the real St. Nicholas’ giving spirit were blended with a fictional personification by New York-based newspaper writers who blended the St. Nicholas name with the appearance of a Dutch town citizen. The goal was to reach out to the primarily Dutch immigrants living in New York at the time. This jolly elf image was given a boost by the publication of “A Visit From St. Nicholas,” which was published around the same time.

Eventually, the merry Santa Claus portrayal began to outshine the more accurate St. Nicholas version as a religious man, fostered by political drawings and caricatures that depicted Santa as a chubby sort in a red suit. That image prevails to this day.

Beneath the Christmas symbolism, the beard and the presents associated with Santa Claus lies a tale of generosity that originated with St. Nicholas.