Now, we know more about mysterious St. Nicholas

Click the cover to visit the book’s Amazon page.THURSDAY, DECEMBER 6: This year, celebrants of St. Nicholas’ feast day have a fresh description of the bishop who died in 343 after a life of Christian compassion for the poorest and most vulnerable in his corner of the world. In Adam English’s new The Saint Who Would Be Santa Claus, he writes in part:

Approximately 5-feet-10-inches in height, his most distinguishing features were his heavy-set jaw and a broken nose. … How did it happen? University of Manchester anthropologist Caroline Wilkinson—who studied measurements of the saint’s preserved skull and bones—shrugs her shoulders and conjectures, “I heard he once punched a bishop,” referring to a legendary altercation between St. Nicholas and Arius, an infamous heretic, at the Council of Nicaea in 325. Others speculate about a hitherto unknown rough and rowdy past or an incident that might have occurred when he was arrested during the great persecution of Christianity in 303. … Also, Nicholas probably suffered from chronic arthritis and perhaps pronounced cephalic pain, evidenced by an unnatural thickening of the inside of the skull bone. Of course, it must be remembered that he died at an old age, so it is unknown whether the arthritis and head pressure were natural ailments of an elderly man or untimely pains that he carried in his body for years.

Despite the rough-and-tumble details of his long life in that dangerous era of early Christianity, Nicholas clearly had an exceptional love and concern for the poor.

WANT FREE PHOTOS OF THE REAL ST. NICHOLAS? We’re giving you a half dozen photos from ancient Myra (now called Demre, Turkey) that you can use in your own websites and publications.


English’s new biography of St. Nicholas sorts through the many legends that later were showered over his memory. These legends are widely known to people who enjoy Christmas traditions or have a particular devotion to St. Nicholas—and that latter category includes millions of men and women around the world. One of the most horrific tales involves St. Nicholas uncovering the murder of three children and bringing them back to life. Others involve St. Nicholas helping sailors in various ways.

After years of research into the roots of these stories, English concludes that those tales were later additions to Nicholas’ extensive lore. The one story that rings true, English argues, is the story of a destitute family with three girls who were coming of age for marriage. Because the family had no dowry to offer, the girls seemed destined for slavery or prostitution. In fact, as English outlines the history of that era, this was a common situation. By both custom and common laws of that era, the family of a bride must provide a dowry as part of any valid marriage. The tragic result of a family’s inability to offer a dowry was so common that it was not even considered a matter for concern by church leaders. However—Nicholas, after studying his Bible, came to the conclusion that he should become their protector. Christianity requires this kind of compassion, Nicholas decided. Today, such a conclusion seems obvious, but Nicholas became an inspiration to the entire Christian world because of his faithful resolve on this particular point.

In the case of the at-risk girls, English writes: Compelled by Scriptures and his Christian convictions, he placed a few gold coins in a small money-purse, tied the string, and in the dead of night tossed it through an open window into the house. When the miraculous gift was found the next morning, the family praised God and cried tears of joy. Because there were three daughters, Nicholas repeated his generous act three times.

Pawnbroker’s shop in Edinburgh, Scotland.The connection of Nicholas’ three bags of gold with the now-universal symbol of pawnbrokers is not as clear cut as is often described in short histories of the saint. It is true, as English points out in his biography, that St. Nicholas is considered the patron saint of pawnbrokers. However, the practice of offering small loans with collateral dates back thousands of years and was widely practiced in China long before the Christian era. In Europe, Christian religious orders including the Franciscans practiced the custom many centuries ago. In that medieval revival of the practice, good-hearted religious pawnbrokers functioned much like today’s microfinance programs in poor communities worldwide. The specific symbol of three gold balls was associated with the powerful Medici clan in Italy and was not necessarily a nod to St. Nicholas. However, despite the complex snarl of roots beneath the symbol of the three golden balls—today, most pawnbrokers claim St. Nicholas as an inspiration. With that almost universal salute to the saint, most pawnbrokers also are happy to tell the story that their three gold balls represent Nicholas’ three historic gifts to the poor. And, on that thorny issue, English is content to let the pawnbrokers’ reference end right there—he doesn’t even try to wade into that historical argument.

Care to read more about Dr. English’s new book about St. Nicholas? Enjoy our 12 Best Books for the 2012 Holidays.


Thanks to years of effort by Christian educator Carol Myers—based in Holland, Michigan, but circling the world in her research—we all can enjoy the world’s largest St. Nicholas website. It’s packed with fun and educational material for the whole family or for use in church groups. Looking for creative ways to spice up St. Nicholas Day? Try hosting a St. Nicholas party in your home, complete with a “show and tell” storytime that explains the St. Nicholas origin of traditions like hanging stockings and candy canes. Before your young guests leave, present them with a coloring page of the real St. Nicholas and fill their shoes with sweets. Churches can hold a St. Nicholas liturgy—or a Breakfast with St. Nicholas! Rather than dining with Santa Claus, have a parishioner dress up as the 4th-century bishop and encourage attending children to have their photo taken with him. Afterward, each child can receive a “Nicholas good deed” suggestion, along with gold candy coins or a candy cane. Slightly older crowds might enjoy an authentic party with cultural dishes (find recipes here) and the Dutch-inspired tradition of leaving elaborate riddles or deceiving gifts inside shoes. (A pen inside a hollowed-out carrot, anyone?)


Several churches nationwide host St. Nicholas festivals or projects at the beginning of December, most of which follow in his footsteps by benefitting the needy. A few among the many this year: Trinity Church in New Jersey will host a St. Nicholas Bazaar to benefit victims of Hurricane Sandy; and YMCA Princeton’s St. Nicholas Project will allow participants to “become” a St. Nicholas and provide gifts for local families in need. St. Nicholas Church in New York will also host a Bazaar, complete with a Ukranian twist.

Originally published at, an online magazine covering religion and cultural diversity.

Print Friendly, PDF & Email