Last weekend, we had several of my son’s friends over to help us decorate our Christmas tree and then bake and decorate and eat cookies. While the cookies were baking, I heard two of the kids talking. “How old is Santa?” one asked. “A hundred?”
“More like a hundred and fifty!” the other said, breathlessly, clearly stunned by the idea that something or someone could be that old.
Well. How could I ignore that question?
Most of us, I believe, know that Santa Claus started out as Saint Nicholas. But, be honest here, how many of us know all that much about that particular Saint?
All right, all right. I don’t know that much about Nicholas.
Nicholas was born in the late third century CE, with bio. saying he was born “sometime circa 280” and Wikipedia giving his date of birth as March 15, 270. Both sources state he was born in the city of Patara (now Arsinoe), which is found on the southwest corner of modern-day Turkey. Catholic Online adds that he was at the Council of Nicaea, and that he was the Bishop of Myra (not too far from Patara, all things considered) at the time of his death – traditionally given as December 6, 343.
Traditionally, Nicholas was quite wealthy and he used that wealth to benefit the residents of his home town. Here’s how Catholic Online relates the story the Saint is most famous for:
An opportunity soon arose for St. Nicholas and his inheritance. A citizen of Patara had lost all his money, and needed to support his three daughters who could not find husbands because of their poverty; so the wretched man was going to give them over to prostitution. Nicholas became informed of this, and thus took a bag of gold and threw it into an open window of the man’s house in the night. Here was a dowry for the eldest girl and she was soon duly married. At intervals Nicholas did the same for the second and the third; at the last time the father was on the watch, recognized his benefactor and overwhelmed Nicholas with his gratitude. It would appear that the three purses represented in pictures, came to be mistaken for the heads of three children and so they gave rise to the absurd story of the children, resuscitated by the saint, who had been killed by an innkeeper and pickled in a brine-tub.
Interestingly enough, we know what he probably looked like. Nicholas’ remains are buried in the crypt in the Basilica de San Nicola, and some detailed measurements and x-rays of his skull were made in the 1950s. Based on thise measurements, and some forensic anthropology and coloration based on people from the region, this is what he would have looked like:
Note that broken nose. Tradition holds that Nicholas was caught up in the Emperor Diocletian’s persecution of Christians, which makes sense – he was a Bishop at the time, after all. He’s also believed to have done time for assault, having slapped Arius in the face at the Council of Nicaea. He also had the temple of Artemis in Myra destroyed, and intervened in several civil cases to get the decisions of bribed judges overturned. As a Saint, Wikipedia lists him as the patron of children, coopers, sailors, fishermen, merchants, broadcasters, the falsely accused, repentant thieves, brewers, pharmacists, archers, pawnbrokers, Aberdeen, Galway, Russia, Greece, the Hellenic Navy, Liverpool, Bari, Siggiewi, Moscow, Amsterdam, Lorraine, and the Duchy of Lorraine.
Yeah. Among other things. The Wikipedia list is fairly short, really. The St. Nicholas Center lists him as the patron of 113 different people and professions. My favorites include lovers, pirates, robbers and thieves, and women who want to get married. I don’t have any idea how accurate any of this is, though, as I can’t find an official listing of Saint Nicholas’ responsibilities.
So Santa’s a little more than 100 – 150, isn’t he?
Just a little. Taking Wikipedia’s stated birth date (March 15, 270), he’s a sprightly 1,746 years old.