Who was St. Nicholas?

Editor’s note: Since the publication of his book “The Saint Who Would Be Santa Claus” in 2012, Campbell University Professor Adam English has emerged as one of the world’s leading authorities on St. Nicholas, aka Santa Claus. No doubt, then, that this is a busy time for the chair of the Department of Religion & Philosophy.

So far this holiday season, English has helped Real Simple magazine develop its timeline of “The Amazing True-Life Tale of Santa Claus.” He has spoken with the German publication Deutsche Welle for their piece “Why St. Nicholas Puts Candy in Boots and Stole Our Hearts.” And he is one of the experts featured in the documentary “Saint Nicholas: The Real Story” released this fall.

Below is a Campbell.edu piece on English and St. Nicholas that originally appeared in 2012 to coincide with the release of his book “The Saint Who Would Be Santa Claus.”

Religion professor Adam English on “The Saint Who Would Be Santa Claus”

This Christmas season you’ll surely hear the name St. Nicholas. In fact, he has a day all to himself. Dec. 6 is St. Nicholas Day, when children in many parts of the world will wake up to find small treats in their shoes or stockings, left to them, they’ll be told, by St. Nicholas. And in the U.S., on Dec. 25, of course, many children will wake up to find gifts left for them, they’ll be told, by Santa Claus, a derivative of St. Nicholas.

Have you ever wondered who St. Nicholas was and if he was even real? Adam English, associate professor of theology and philosophy at Campbell University, has. Such wondering led him to travel to Bari, Italy, several years ago. There, he visited the tomb of St. Nicholas of Myra, whom many suspected to be the original St. Nicholas, as well as an archival library maintained by Dominican friars.

English spent hours in that library looking at historical documents, ultimately discovering a gold mine of information about St. Nicholas of Myra. “We oftentimes get the impression that St. Nicholas didn’t exist, or if he did, we don’t know much about him. He’s sort of a shadowy quasi-historical person,” English says. “But looking at these documents, I instantly realized that there is this huge story that hasn’t been told.”

Over the next four years, English pored through archival materials, traveled widely to interview other scholars and immersed himself in the life and times of St. Nicholas. The result is his book “The Saint Who Would Be Santa Claus,” which was published by Baylor University Press in November 2012.

“In most books or resources, the story of St. Nicholas is an introduction to the story of Santa Claus,” English says. “I wanted to reverse the flow of the ordinary pattern of how historians have told the story. I wanted to make St. Nicholas the real story.”

English shared with Campbell.edu four overarching things he learned about St. Nicholas during the researching and writing of his book — and how the fourth-century saint is still relevant today.

1. Yes, there really was a St. Nicholas.

English says there were two things working against him when he started the “pain-staking labor” that went into researching his book. One, the prominent scholars of the 20th century cast doubt on the very existence of St. Nicholas; and if he did exist, the scholars said he wasn’t much of a “saint,” English says. And two, the more popular and mainstream accounts perpetuated an erroneous view of him. Specifically, the popular tale merged the stories of two men named Nicholas who lived 200 years apart into one narrative.

English set out to find out the truth about St. Nicholas. With the help of travel and research stipends from Campbell, as well as a sabbatical, English spent large portions of four years working on the project. Though St. Nicholas left no writings behind, English found clues, scraps of stories and small anecdotes in the documents and biographies written thousands of years ago that suggested there was a St. Nicholas who lived in the fourth century in Myra, a city along the southern coast of what is now Turkey. “There’s no single piece of evidence, but a lot of little things cobbled together,” English says. “You’re looking for needles in a haystack.”

One such needle to support the existence of St. Nicholas, English says, was that the name Nicholas didn’t appear in the historical record before the fourth century. But after the fourth century, the name popped up in a slew of documents that referenced or were connected to the Myra area. “Parents were now, in the 300s A.D., naming their kids Nicholas right in the area where St. Nicholas of Myra lived,” English says. “That’s a very indirect reference, but it clearly indicates that there was a Nicholas there and that people were picking up on his story and naming their kids after him.”

Based on the primary sources, English reports that St. Nicholas of Myra was born sometime after the year 260 A.D. and died around the year 335.

2. St. Nicholas was a man of charity.

St. Nicholas is often depicted in art carrying three bags of gold. That’s because he was generous with the sizable amount of money he inherited when his parents died. One night, specifically, St. Nicholas filled three bags full of gold and tossed each one into a home where three young, impoverished women lived. The young women, on the brink of starvation, used the gold as dowries to get married and escape the door of destitution, English says.

“This act stands out as a unique instance of charity,” English says, because such acts of charity were not found in the historical record before St. Nicholas of Myra and because most of the stories about saints at the time revolved around saints performing miraculous wonders or dying as martyrs.

The act propelled St. Nicholas into the imagination of the people, English says, and his story began to be passed from generation to generation. Over time, St. Nicholas’ story and name continued to gradually grow, so much so that by the 1100s, nuns in France were making handcrafted toys, signing them from St. Nicholas, and leaving them at the homes where children lived.

Think of how that legacy has played out today in many parts of the world, English says. In Europe, St. Nicholas is celebrated each year on Dec. 6, St. Nicholas Day. On the eve of St. Nicholas Day, the legend goes, St. Nicholas, who looks like a Catholic bishop, places small gifts such as fruit, cookies and candies in the shoes or stockings of children, who are encouraged to share their treats with others.

And in the U.S., St. Nicholas’ name is in the vernacular of popular culture; Christmas is a time of giving and receiving gifts; and the modernized Santa Claus draws from St. Nicholas. “Santa,” for example, loosely derives from “saint,” and popular renderings of Santa include him with a bag to carry goodies for children.

3. St. Nicholas had a strong sense of justice.

St. Nicholas was not only known for his acts of charity, he also was a businessman, a patron of the city, a judge and a lawyer who stood up for justice and who considered himself a public servant. There are numerous stories of him coming to the assistance of fellow citizens, including accounts of him saving innocent men from beheadings and intervening in the court of law on behalf of other people, English says.

Also, he once bartered with a ship from Egypt to supply grains for the city of Myra, which prevented a famine. Another time, residences in Myra asked him to plead with legislators to lower taxes. He traveled 300 miles to the capital, where he petitioned for lower taxes on behalf of the people. “He’s not a one-dimensional character,” English says.

Consider that St. Nicholas is depicted in art not only by carrying three bags of gold but also by carrying a whip. Many medieval legends include references to whips that are used to enforce order and justice. St. Nicholas’ whip represents how he “was not only jolly, but he had a strong sense of justice — of weighing out deeds, both good and bad,” English says.

To this day, English adds, “there is evidence of this concern.” Think of the naughty or nice list our popularized version of Santa Claus keeps.

4. St. Nicholas modeled the Christian life.

St. Nicholas was a Christian pastor and bishop. At the time of his birth, Christianity was a persecuted minority religion; and by the time of his death, Christianity had become a legalized religion favored by the emperor. But St. Nicholas wasn’t much of a scholar or a thinker. Still, he helped shape the Christian faith. “And that was what was so exciting and interesting about him,” English says. “There are many saints who were intellectuals and scholars who influenced Christian thought, but here is a saint who influenced faith by his actions, by his life.

“His influence is his testimony of charity.”

St. Nicholas’ influence directly affected English, too. You can’t spend four years researching the life of a man who was passionate about faith, justice and charity without being transformed in some way, English says.

For starters, English can’t look at Christmas the same way. Until he started researching and writing about the life of St. Nicholas, English always viewed Christmas as a domestic family affair. Now, he sees the holiday as a community activity that shouldn’t involve just his own family but also neighbors, strangers and people in need; and that it shouldn’t just involve the exchanging of Christmas gifts but also a time to carry out acts of charity and justice, like St. Nicholas did, and to extend hospitality to others.

“Christmas should be a time to step outside our comfort zone,” English says. “That’s the lesson of St. Nicholas: He challenges us to move beyond our fireplace and to reach out to the world.”

Read an excerpt from “The Saint Who Would Be Santa Claus.”

And, for the day-to-day living, St. Nicholas is “inspiring even today because he was an ordinary man doing things that were remarkably ordinary,” English says.

“We may not become a missionary in China or do some kind of remarkable feat for the Lord, but we can bag up groceries and leave them on the doors of someone in need,” he adds. “That is the spirit of St. Nicholas.

“He is a Christian man who gives us an example of how to live a charitable, just and righteous life.”