The History of How St. Nicholas Became Santa Claus

Jolly Old St. Nicholas?
Every December 6, the faithful celebrate St. Nicholas Day in cities all over the world, with the largest ones taking place in Europe. Images of St. Nicholas vary considerably, but none of them look much like the red-cheeked, white-bearded old man seen everywhere today. One of the most compelling views of the real St. Nick, who lived in the third and fourth centuries, was created not by ancient artists but by using modern forensic facial reconstruction.

Scholarly debate over where the remains of the Greek bishop rest continues to this day, but traditionally, it was believed that the bones of St. Nicholas were stolen by Italian sailors during the 11th century and taken to the crypt of the Basilica di San Nicola on the southeast coast of Italy. When the crypt was repaired in the 1950s, the saint’s skull and bones were documented with x-ray photos and thousands of detailed measurements. (For theories on other possible resting places of St. Nicholas, read: “Could the Remains of Santa Claus Be in This Turkish Church?”)

Caroline Wilkinson, a facial anthropologist at the University of Manchester (England), used these data and modern software simulations to create a modern reconstruction of the long-dead man. Wilkinson put a human face on Santa’s original namesake—one with a badly broken nose, possibly suffered during the persecution of Christians under the Roman Emperor Diocletian.

Much of her work is necessarily subject to interpretation. The size and shape of the facial muscles that once covered Nicholas’s skull had to be inferred, and the shape of that skull itself was recreated from two-dimensional data. Digital artists added details that were based on best guesses, including the olive-toned skin most common among Greek Mediterraneans like Nicholas, brown eyes, and the gray hair of a 60-year-old man.

“We are bound to have lost some of the level of detail you would get by working from photographs, but we believe this is the closest we are ever going to get to him,” Wilkinson said in the BBC Two feature film of the project entitled The Real Face of Santa.

From bishop to gift giver
How did this St. Nicholas turn into the North Pole-dwelling bringer of Christmas gifts? The original saint was a Greek born in the late third century, around 280 A.D. He became bishop of Myra, a small Roman town in modern Turkey. Nicholas was neither fat nor jolly but developed a reputation as a fiery, wiry, and defiant defender of church doctrine during the Great Persecution in 303, when Bibles were burned and priests made to renounce Christianity or face execution.

Nicholas defied these edicts and spent years in prison before the Roman emperor Constantine ended Christian persecution in 313 with the Edict of Milan. Nicholas’s fame lived long after his death (on December 6 in the mid-fourth century, around 343) because he was associated with many miracles, and reverence for him continues to this day independent of his Christmas connection. He is the protector of many types of people, from orphans to sailors to prisoners.

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