St. Nicholas Becomes Santa Claus

by Edward Hays in The Christmas Eve Storyteller

A fanciful tale of how this could have happened

Bishop St. Nicholas
Antique Czech die-cut
St Nicholas Center Collection

The tall, lean, ascetical Bishop Nicholas arrived in the new world together with a boatload of other Dutch immigrants. Old Bishop Nicholas was such a good man that everyone called him Saint Nicholas. He was loved by children and adults alike, even if he was a bit stern and pious.

One fair day, he was walking along the road alone when a black coach drawn by four black horses came thundering down the road. When the foreboding carriage and its dark steeds reached him, it suddenly came to a halt. Three hooded figures leaped out of the coach and seized the aged bishop. They quickly dragged him into the coach and, shouting an order to the driver, whisked him to an old farmhouse hidden way back in the hills.

Once they had secured him inside the old house, the kidnappers confronted him. The conspirators were actually colonial businessmen, New England shopkeepers. Using threats, they insisted that St. Nicholas tell them his secret. "ell us," they demanded of the old saint, "what is the secret of your popularity at the holiday season? Why are the children so fond of you?"

The aged bishop pressed his lips tightly together, shook his head from left to right and refused to answer. No matter how much they threatened him, he was resolute in his silence.

The kidnappers then attempted various forms of torture to get him to talk. First they tried to pry the secret out of him by months of solitary confinement, but to no avail. The saintly bishop loved the solitude, telling his captors that he had always longed to be a hermit.

His kidnappers now changed tactics and began to torture him with starvation! Each day for months all they gave him was bread and water. He didn't complain. In fact, he loved it. He told them that he had always wanted to do a long penance with a Black Fast. Because of this punishment, St. Nicholas was now lean as a fence post, but his lips were sealed about his secret.

At this, his captors held a meeting in the kitchen of the farmhouse to decide what they could do to make St. Nicholas talk. The leader of the gang slammed his fist on the kitchen table, saying, "He's a saint! We try to starve him to death, and he only calls it a fast! We lock him up in solitary confinement, and he calls it desert solitude. What are we going to do?"

"I've got it," cried one of the merchant captors who proceeded to share his new form of torture with his co-conspirators.

"Yes, yes, that's the way to pry out the secret of his popularity at the holiday season," they all shouted gleefully.

Beginning the very next day they brought a collection of musicians, singers, jesters and clowns to the farmhouse. Day and night-with the bishop's hands tied to a chair so he couldn't hold them over his ears—they tortured the saint. For hours on end the musicians played and sang merry songs. Then the clowns performed funny acts and told him endless jokes. The saint screamed for mercy, but no mercy was shown. In fact, this was only the first wave of their new torture.

The second phase of their vicious plan was to force feed him slices of mouth-watering pink roast beef, gallons of plum pudding and hot chestnuts roasted on an open fire. The cruel merchants forced Saint Nicholas to eat five full meals a day, as well as a snack before bedtime. When he refused, they placed a funnel in his mouth and stuffed him like a goose being readied for market.

After months of this cruel torture, poor Saint Nicholas finally broke down. "Stop, stop. All right, I'll tell you what you want to know!"

Eagerly the captors encircled the saint, rubbing their greasy palms in excitement. The bloated, bedraggled bishop was only able to whisper a few words.

"Louder, you papist!" shouted the shopkeepers. 'What's your secret?"

"My secret," whispered St. Nicholas, whose white beard was full of cookie crumbs and sticky clots of honey, "my secret is that the greatest joy in life is in giving gifts! And those who give are counted among the most beloved of all. The secret is gift-giving."

Well, friends, that's how the Christmas Season was born. The New England merchants lived happily ever after and, I might add, richly ever after. You may think that the story ends here, but don't forget about the holy hostage, St. Nicholas.

Having forced out his secret, the shopkeeper captors raced off to the city, leaving St. Nicholas alone in the old farmhouse. During his imprisonment he had worn only his long underwear. Now that he was free to leave, he went looking for his bishop's robes. Finding nothing downstairs, he climbed into the attic of the farm house.

Finding clothes
Illustration: Edward Hays
Used by permission

At the top of the attic steps the first thing he saw was a tall, oval mirror. Poor St. Nicholas glanced at his image and couldn't believe what he saw! He was so fat that his belly looked like a fifty pound sack of sugar! His beard, which once had been trimmed neatly, was now long and bushy. The endless hours of being tortured by having to listen to music and merriment had changed even his facial appearance! His face no longer was piously stern. It now wore a permanent broad and jolly smile. Even his eyes, once downcast with humility, now danced with mirth.

As he looked in the mirror, he realized that even if he found his bishop's robes, they would no longer fit him. What was he to do? He couldn't leave the house wearing only his white long underwear. Then he spied an old trunk in the far end of the attic. Inside, he found a red Dutch farmer's suit and cap trimmed with white fur, a large black belt and a pair of leather knee boots. To his surprise, they fit perfectly. He walked out of the farmhouse a free man and, according to local legend, left New England for far-off places.

In barn with reindeer
Illustration: Edward Hays
Used by permission

The most reliable accounts say that the escaped bishop went to the far North as a missionary to the elves. For years he labored there to convert them from their pagan ways and naughty habits of playing little tricks on humans. Like a good missionary, he not only converted them, he also taught them a productive trade—toy-making! It also seems that he fell in love and married a wonderful woman who wanted to share his life. Nothing more is known about him until the middle of the nineteenth century.

During the mid-1800's St. Nick returned to America and his old occupation of bringing gifts to children. His nighttime visits were not on December 6th, which had been his customary day for gift-giving, but on Christmas Eve or on the very feast of the Christ Child's birth. Whenever he was seen, which was rarely, he was not dressed as a bishop. He wore instead the red suit and boots he had found in the farmhouse attic. Also, he now traveled in a wondrous sleigh. Further, his name had been slightly changed from the original Dutch. No longer was he known as Santa Nic'Claus, but now as Santa Claus.

By Edward Hays, The Christmas Eve Storyteller, Forest of Peace Publishing, 1992, copyright © Edward M. Hays, pages 14–20. Used by permission. Purchase from, or

A Blessed and Merry Christmas
Illustration: Edward Hays
Used by permission
Santa and elves in sleigh
Illustration: Edward Hays
Used by permission

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