The world’s leading academics collaborated to answer a simple question wondered by children around the world — what did St. Nicholas actually look like?
Using all available skeletal and historical records, Professor Caroline Wilkinson, a facial anthropologist, constructed a model in 2004, which was subsequently updated in 2014 at the Face Lab at the Liverpool School of Art and Design. In a fitting gesture, the students at Liverpool’s St. Nicholas Catholic Primary School were the first eyes to behold this image of the “real face of Santa Claus.”
Nearly all historical accounts of the fourth-century bishop remain deeply colored by myth and legend. Embellished stories of St. Nicholas of Myra spread first through oral transitions and then non-biblical plays throughout the Middle Ages. By the sixth century, St. Nicholas had a sort of cult following in the East, but few surviving reliable records of his life exist.
As Catholics today, we can reclaim the tradition of St. Nicholas in many ways, beginning with teaching ourselves and our children about this saint and how his life encourages us to give and to reach out to others during the Advent and Christmas season.
Bert Ghezzi in Voices of the Saints writes that all we definitively know about St. Nicholas is that a man of that name became bishop of Myra, now in modern Turkey, during the fourth century, and then after his death he was buried in the cathedral there.
Tradition holds that St. Nicholas was born to Greek Christian parents in a Turkish city on the Mediterranean Sea. After St. Nicholas became the bishop of Myra, stories of his generosity to the poor and the persecuted proliferated.
Some records include St. Nicholas on the list of attendees at the First Council of Nicaea (325), where issues regarding the relationship of the Father and the Son were debated and resolved. Stories have suggested that St. Nicholas became incensed during the debates and actually struck Arius, who emphasized the divinity of God the Father over God the Son.
St. Nicholas most likely suffered persecution during the reign of the Roman Emperor Diocletian, and he may have been exiled or imprisoned. The image of St. Nicholas that Professor Wilkinson’s research yielded shows a middle-aged man with a broken nose, which potentially supports this account of St. Nicholas’ suffering.
After his death, St. Nicholas’ remains were buried in his cathedral in Myra, but in 1087 sailors seized the remains, fearing they would be desecrated during this tumultuous period of history. They are now interred partially in the Basilica di San Nicola in Bari, Italy, and partially in the church San Nicolò al Lido in Venice.
A wealth of stories about St. Nicholas offer rich accounts of his legendary kindness. In the most popular legend, St. Nicholas heard that a poor father couldn’t afford dowries, food or clothing for his three daughters. To save the family from destitution and the daughters from potential slavery, St. Nicholas deposited three bags full of gold to be used for the three daughters’ dowries. Some accounts share that he tossed these bags through the window and may have even sent the last bag down the chimney.
In many of the legends about St. Nicholas, as Ghezzi points out, symbolic “threes” occur. He may have freed three innocent men from prison and rescued three falsely accused guards. More elaborate myths share stories of St. Nicholas resurrecting three children who had been murdered and pickled in brine!
If we disentangle St. Nicholas from what Professor Adam English, author of The Saint Who Would Be Santa Claus: The True Life and Trials of Nicholas of Myra, calls colorful “barnacles and add-ons,” the unsubstantiated myths about his life, we find that the spirit of St. Nicholas is still an inspiration for this season.
Professor English’s work on St. Nicholas emphasizes that early accounts and artistic depictions of the saint show him as not only gift giving, but also simply generous and just. One example is when St. Nicholas traveled to implore tax relief for Myra citizens. In fact, Professor English suggests that we might imitate St. Nicholas’ example of being “very much involved in the public good” throughout the year.
Particularly during the Christmas season, we can begin Advent by re-centering our families on Christ and teaching them of the real St. Nicholas by celebrating his feast day on Dec. 6. On the eve of this feast, children have traditionally left shoes outside their doors to receive small gifts, coins or candy canes, representing the bishop’s staff, in the morning.
Even more importantly, we can imitate St. Nicholas by completing acts of kindness for others in our family or in our larger community. Perhaps we can make Advent resolutions to do small, selfless acts for others within our domestic church and to become involved in at least one outreach initiative during this season.
St. Nicholas, friend of the poor and those in need, pray for us.