From the Vault: The Lore of Saint Nicholas

December 6, 2019 – March 15, 2020

The Lore of Saint Nicholas explores the mysterious and wondrous persona of Russia’s most popular saint. Saint Nicholas is one of the most popularized and propagated Saints in Christianity; his icons are perhaps the most numerous after those of Christ and the Mother of God. Throughout Christendom, he is known as a wonderworker, gift-giver, and protector; in the secular world, he is more commonly known as children’s hero, Santa Claus. 

Historically very little is known about the life of this generous saint; there are no known written works by him, and the earliest document that mentions him dates back to the 6th century. The lack of historical documentation is unsurprising as the 4th century was turbulent, and much was left or oral histories. There is little doubt, however, that Nicholas existed; in the 5th century a church, dedicated to Nicholas, was built by Emperor Theodosius II and in the 6th century Emperor Justinian I (527-565) renovated a Church of Saint Nichols in Constantinople. 

Scholars agree that Nicholas lived during the 3rd and 4th centuries in Lycia, a province in the area now known as Turkey. He became Bishop of Myra, a principal city of Lycia, and is believed to have been an effective and wise leader. Some accounts note that he was imprisoned during the “Great Persecution;” a series of anti-Christian edicts issued by Emperor Diocletian between the years 297 and 305. Nicholas was also listed as an attendee at the First Council of Nicaea in 325, where he is believed to have opposed the Arian movement.

Nicholas’s reputation for leadership, kindness, and generosity grew after his death, and as more people prayed for his help, countless miracles were attributed to him. Tales of the gift-giver and protector of children spread throughout Europe, and the pious, humble, saint became a figure of legend. By the 18th century, the Dutch figure Sinterklass (Saint Nicholas) had merged with the English folk figure Father Christmas which gave rise to many children’s stories and family traditions that bear little resemblance to the icons and hagiography of the 4th century Bishop.