Will the Real St. Nick Please Stand Up?

Santa Claus decorations are pictured on December 4, 2012 at the Galeries Lafayette Paris department store, ahead of the Chris
Santa Claus decorations are pictured on December 4, 2012 at the Galeries Lafayette Paris department store, ahead of the Christmas celebrations. AFP PHOTO MIGUEL MEDINA (Photo credit should read MIGUEL MEDINA/AFP/Getty Images)

Here's a Saint Nicholas story you may have never heard: When the city of Myra received notice of an unbearable tax-hike in the early part of the fourth century, municipal officials commissioned Nicholas, the first and original Santa Claus, to travel to the capital and plead their case before the Emperor. Nicholas, a respected and elderly bishop, had met Emperor Constantine once before at the famous Council of Nicaea and so was able to obtain an audience. He made his appeal and moved the Emperor to reduce the taxes to a shockingly low amount - from 10,000 denarii to a mere 100.

Nicholas had the foresight to get this new and lower amount in writing. Hurriedly, he tied the new edict to a stick and threw it into the ocean, where it bobbed off and was found a few days later on the shores of Myra. His impulse to forward the edict as quickly as possible proved to be the right course of action, because Emperor Constantine soon came to regret his rash decision and recalled Nicholas to his court, asking for the signed decree back. Nicholas could only apologize -- the edict was no longer in his possession, but already in effect in Myra.

Though it does not evoke Christmas cheer or thoughts of Santa, the story of tax-reduction is delightful and unexpectedly relevant. Saint Nicholas shows himself to be more than a seasonal gift-giver; he is a model of Christian virtue and civic action. He is a saint for our times -- someone who cares about taxes! Yet this story, like so many others about him, leaves historians in something of an academic lurch, wondering which parts are trustworthy and which are not. The tax tale weaves historical happenings (Nicholas being sent by the city of Myra to petition for lower taxes) with folk-miracle (the stick that floats from the capital at Constantinople to Myra).

Despite his worldwide fame and popularity among children of all ages, Saint Nicholas is one of history's more elusive characters. He lived between the years 260 and 335 on the south-west coast of what is now Turkey, serving the church of Myra as bishop and pastor. He left no written records of his own and none of his contemporaries mention him by name. The first written records surfaced hundreds of years after his death. Although these documents might be in essence reliable, they are, because of their distance in time from the original events, tinged with certain legendary embellishments. The hard work of the scholar is to clean away those embellishments and separate fact from flourish. But the surgical procedure is not always a complete success, and sometimes it's not even advisable.

We modern people have problems with things we can't compartmentalize: a story is either fact or fiction, true or false, legendary or historical, but we cannot imagine that it could be both. And yet, the narrative of Nicholas is, like so many other vitae or "lives" of Christian saints, precisely that -- history and legend -- that is to say, hagiography.

When an ancient tiled icon of Nicholas was hauled out of the Aegean Sea by fisherman, it was covered in barnacles and mussels. The unwanted attachments were scraped and pried off, but some of the icon's tiles broke off as well, leaving a jagged scar in the forehead of the saint.

Reconstructing the life of Nicholas is like trying to clean that icon; it involves more than just locating the right historical documents and spiffing them up a bit. The barnacles of legend, myth and exaggeration that have cemented themselves to the historical facts must be pried away. And yet, it should be kept in mind that the folkloric barnacles cannot be detached without permanently scarring -- or even losing -- the person. They are too tightly joined.

In spite of these complications, Saint Nicholas remains a truly inspiring character. Not only did he give gifts generously, he advocated for his people. Nicholas halted the execution of three innocent men, chastised the judge for his miscarriage of justice, and visited others in prison, proving himself to be more than a simple pastor concerned with spiritual affairs alone. He cared about the hard-packed existence of ordinary people.

The scene of Nicholas visiting captives locked away in a prison tower was regularly depicted by early artists on frescoed walls and in paintings. However, to some viewers of these scenes, it appeared that the prison was not a stone tower but a wooden barrel and that the naked prisoners were actually naked children. Consequently, legend sprang up that Nicholas had resurrected three murdered children from a horrendous fate of being butchered and stuffed into pickling barrels. The new story became so popular that it was turned into a stage-act, the earliest medieval play on record to feature a non-biblical storyline.

Puritanical academics might be tempted to cut away and dispose of the fatty-tissue layers of myth, just as some Christmas Scrooges want to dispense with Santa Claus as nothing more than the byproduct of American consumerism. But think of what would be lost. The rich moral lessons and cultural treasures are found as much in the imaginative lore as in the gritty actuality.

In my four years of researching Nicholas I have come to understand that although the man may be long dead, his memory not only survives, but thrives. Whether on Christmas Eve when American children watch eagerly for Santa's sleigh, or on Dec. 5 when Sinterklaas comes to the Dutch Netherlands riding a white horse, or in mid-June when thousands of Russians make pilgrimage to Velikoretsky in homage to the saint, or on Whitmonday when in France hundreds and hundreds process to the cathedral of Saint-Nicolas-de-Port, Nicholas continues to be celebrated and revered. There is something to be learned from history, from legend and from faith.