Jeremy Seal on an Epic History
BATH, England, DEC. 20, 2005 (Zenit.org).– The modern persona of Santa Claus is a far cry from its origins: St. Nicholas, bishop of Myra. So how did he go from a charitable saint to an icon of Christmas consumerism?
Travel writer Jeremy Seal embarked on an international search to answer that question and recorded his findings in Nicholas: The Epic Journey from Saint to Santa Claus (Bloomsbury).
Seal told ZENIT what he discovered tracking the cult of Santa Claus across the globe and why he thinks St. Nicholas and his charism of charity still resonate today—despite the commercialization of Christmas.
Illustration: Aleksandra Magnuszewska-Oczko
from Nikolaus und Santa Claus, 1998, Verlagsgesellschaft, Vienna
St Nicholas Center Collection
Q: What inspired you to write this book? To what lengths did you go to research it?
Seal: I was drawn to this subject because I have children of my own, two girls who were 6 and 2 when I started this project. They reminded me how significant a figure Santa is to children.
I also was attracted to St. Nicholas because his story has an epic quality. I am a travel writer and was aware that in his posthumous evolution he made a strange journey from his beginnings in Turkey to Europe, Manhattan and the frozen north.
I went to all the places associated with Nicholas' life.
I began in Turkey where his original basilica stands in Myra, now Demre; followed his cult west to Bari, Italy, and north to Venice; then Amsterdam and plenty of other places in Europe; then on to Manhattan and eventually to Lapland in northern Finland and Sweden with my daughters last Christmas.
Q: Who was St. Nicholas of Myra?Seal: We know very little about him. He was a fourth-century bishop of Myra, a town in southern Turkey now known as Demre. There are almost no references to his actual life except for a material reference in a sixth-century manuscript.
We're left with an almost entirely posthumous St. Nicholas. But because he was such a success posthumously, it suggests something in his life must have commended him; we don't know much about him but get the sense that he was a special person.
Nicholas seems to be a sensible person that made his name from giving material, practical assistance. That aspect has resonated through the ages because material assistance is something we all need and can relate to.
Q: What are some of his most remarkable deeds?
Seal: There are a whole range of stories, because he was unique in living a long life. During his time, most Christian saints were martyred, but Nicholas has lots of stories because he lived a long life and he died in his bed.
You can select any number of stories about him, but most have in common his bringing help to people.
There are endless stories of him saving sailors caught in storms off Myra. Once he persuaded the captain of a passing ship to bring his grain cargo to Myra where people were starving -- and the captain's cargo of grain was replenished.
Some falsely accused soldiers awaiting execution saw him in a vision; Nicholas comforted them and brought about their release.
When the idea of Nicholas reached Russia in the 11th century, a whole new range of stories popped up. Russians call him "ugodnik," which means "helper." In Russia, he helps in other ways: assisting shepherds in protecting their flock from wolves, protecting houses from being burned down, etc.
Q: What obstacles did the cult of St. Nicholas face through the centuries?
Seal: I think there are two particular areas.
First, from the eighth century onward, the area where he began in southern Turkey was increasingly under threat from advancing Muslims, who didn't have much interest in him.
Nicholas' relics were removed from Turkey in 1087 and were taken to Bari, Italy, which established him in Europe and allowed his cult to expand throughout the continent. It was an amazingly timely relocation because he was not to be marginalized in a future Islamic country; he could start again in Bari with a cathedral over his relics.
Second, the Reformation swept across Northern Europe in the 16th and 17th centuries and downgraded the significance of saints. I think he survived that because he had become a figure that had moved beyond the Church -- he had become a cherished member of the home.
Nicholas would come every Dec. 6 and bring gifts down the chimney to children in Northern Europe as early as the 14th century; he was popular and much loved. This seems to have given him and his cult a kind of resilience when elsewhere the images and statues of saints were being razed, burned or smashed.
Q: How did he evolve into the present-day Santa Claus?
Seal: The love of Nicholas kept his cult alive up until the late 18th century in Manhattan, where a re-versioning of Santa Claus occurred.
The name "Santa Claus" is an American accented version of the Dutch "Sinterklaas." St. Nicholas and Santa Claus are the same person, but many people don't realize that. They are one in the same, but they look different because they are at different points in his posthumous evolution.
We don't know when the idea was carried from Northern Europe to New Amsterdam, now Manhattan. It's safe to say he came with early settlers as a fake memory and was then dormant in North America until the late 18th century.
What happened then was that gift giving, which had been until that time a local and seasonal exchange of homemade objects, exploded into something bigger. Mass manufacturing began, retail shops opened, toys became available from Northern Europe, and books, musical instruments and linens all became purchasable.
The effect this had was that gift-giving customs were transformed out of all recognition. This caused the need for a providing spirit of gift giving. St. Nicholas was the gift giver from the old world in the Dutch and English traditions; they didn't have to think back too far to remember him.
People in the late 18th century popularized the idea of Santa Claus, but not too deliberately at that time for commercialization. He began to emerge then and his name gradually changed into Santa Claus.
In the 1820s he began to acquire the recognizable trappings: reindeer, sleigh, bells. They are simply the actual bearings in the world from which he emerged. At that time, sleighs were how you got about Manhattan.
The poem "A Visit from St. Nicholas," also known as "'Twas the Night Before Christmas," debuted in 1822 and described all his details. He smoked a pipe then, but was well on the way to be the figure we know now.
As all these elements took shape around him, he became more and more associated with commercialism, which is understandable but a corruption of what he originally meant. In the medieval period he was a symbol and icon of charity. I am not sure that is true anymore; he seems to be a strange mixture of charity and rampant commercialism.
Q: What do you suggest faithful Christian parents tell their children about Santa?
Seal: What I have tried to do by tracing Santa back to his origin is remind myself there is a real moral point to gift giving. St. Nicholas' point was helping people when they were in a spot.
That is the lesson we can take out of this. Gifts just for the sake of giving to our loved ones who have enough may not reflect what St. Nicholas was all about.
How to frame questions about the significance of this man to children, I do not know.
I am a lapsed Anglican, but I find St. Nicholas fascinating from the intellectual and moral points of view. I love the wonderful moral material that he stands for, his active charity.
St. Nicholas appeals to anyone with any moral basis; no belief system can disagree with what he stands for.
He speaks to everyone because so much theology can be complex, but he and his stories are simple. I think that is why they have resonated for hundreds of years and why they had evolved into this family rite we practice with Santa Claus today.
Interview from ZENIT, December 20, 2005. Used by permission.
NPR: The Story of St. Nicholas an interview with Jeremy Seal by Renee Montagne, Morning Edition, December 23, 2005
Seal, Jeremy, Nicholas: The epic journey from Saint to Santa Claus Bloomsbury, New York & London, 2005; UK edition: Santa: A Life
Nicholas' transformation into Santa told through careful historical detail, travelogue, and personal reflection; extensive material on Nicholas as Saint, as well as Santa
Purchase from amazon.com, amazon.ca or amazon.uk.