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Extended Interview: How Saint Nicholas became Santa Claus

'The Saint Who Would Be Santa Claus,' by Adam C. English.
'The Saint Who Would Be Santa Claus,' by Adam C. English.

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Over the Holiday season, Santa Claus sees his face plastered around the world, from commercials for Coca-Cola in the U.S, to reprising his role as Dun Che Lao Ren, or ‘Christmas Old Man,’ in China. But did Santa Claus even exist? KPCC’s Patt Morrison spoke with Adam C. English, author of ‘The Saint Who Would Be Santa Claus: The True Life and Trials of Nicholas of Myra’ to find out how Saint Nicholas was transformed into a worldwide phenomenon. 

It’s difficult to think of Christmas without thinking about Santa Claus: the plump, white-bearded jolly man in a red suit, who brings gifts to well-behaved kids on his reindeer-led sleigh. But the story behind the real Santa Claus isn’t quite so refined.

Santa Claus is an interpretation of sorts of St. Nicholas, an actual Saint and Greek Bishop with a remarkable story. In his new book The Saint Who Would Be Santa Claus, Adam C. English pulls together an historical portrait, based on documents, archaeology, and legend, of a charitable bishop with a passion for social justice, and an important role in perhaps Christianity’s most important period: the conversion of the Roman Empire.

St. Nicholas served as the Bishop of Myra, in present-day Turkey, and was renowned for his commitment to the impoverished citizens of his town. The legend of Santa Claus and his gifts derived from Nicholas giving away his possessions to impoverished families. St. Nicholas was also involved in critical historical events that saw Christianity emerge as a dominant world religion. He played a key role in the destroying the temple of Artemis in Myra, a pivotal event looking to erase Rome’s pagan past and cement its Christian future. He also attended the Council of Nicaea, one of the seminal events in early Christianity, and the birthplace of the Nicene Creed. 

This interview originally aired on KPCC's Take Two

Interview Excerpts

St. Nicholas as an activist:

“That was some of the most surprising bits for me to discover, to really sort of reshape the jolly elf of generosity that we’ve come to imagine him to be, and to see that he was also a man of public action. Yes, there are stories about him stopping the beheading of three innocent men, and him going all the way to the capitol to petition for lower taxes, and stopping grain ships to barter for grain for the starving people of Myra. So he worked for the people, and did much more than simply give gifts.”

The reasons for St. Nicholas' early popularity:

“Some of the earliest stories about Nicholas tell him getting on board ships with the sailors, rolling up his sleeves, and going to work, helping with the oars and the ropes. And so he was immensely popular with them. I think that’s one of the reasons for the early spread of his story and his fame. Sailors are taking icons and images and statues, and of course stories, with them up rivers and across seas, and everywhere they’re going, of course, they’re telling the stories of St. Nicholas. So very quickly he becomes a very popular saint throughout Europe.”

Adam English on his hopes of the impact of St. Nicholas:

“My real hope is that learning more about St. Nicholas really enriches our own family and Santa Claus traditions. I don’t want to simply say no to Santa Claus, but I really want to say yes to St. Nicholas. What Nicholas does, is challenge us to broaden our horizons. The Santa Claus traditions of gift giving focus on our immediate, intimate family. What St. Nicholas does, and what families do by bringing St. Nicholas into the home, is to broaden beyond the walls of the family. St. Nicholas gave to those whom he did not know, and did not love, those in the most need, and that is really something that can be added into family celebrations of Christmas, giving gifts not only to their family members whom they know and love, but to those who are in need whom they do not know.”