Saint Nicholas of Myra, Bari, and Manhattan:
Biography of a Legend
book review by Howard Hageman, Theology Today, October 1979
Saint Nicholas of Myra, Bari, and Manhattan: Biography of a Legend
By Charles W. Jones
Chicago, University of Chicago Press, 1978. 558 pp. $28.00.
When this book first came into my hands, I stared at it with something like disbelief. How could anyone manage to write 558 pages of material about someone who quite possibly never existed? Admittedly Jones, a retired professor from the University of California, has had, according to the blurb on the dust jacket, a forty-year interest in the figure of St. Nicholas, and that has taken him from Constantinople to New York in search of material. But even so, how could that be stretched out into a book of this length and who would read it? As a Hudson Valley Dutchman and a member of the St. Nicholas Society of New York, I thought it my duty to give it a try—with delightful results.
In fact, I had not got very far into Jones’ book before all of my initial suspicions had disappeared. Whether or not there ever was an historic Bishop Nicholas of Myra (Jones thinks that there may well have been) becomes a totally irrelevant question as the author traces the growth of the St. Nicholas legend. He speculates that December 6, St. Nicholas’ Day, may well have been in pre-Christian times a feast of Poseidon, marking the beginning of winter and possibly the day when navigation was closed. In any event, Nicholas, who according to tradition died in 343, began as a Christian Poseidon, a patron of mariners, “a white-horsed rider of the waves.”
There is not space here to do more than indicate Jones’ full description of the growth of the Nicholas legend in his native Asia Minor. What is fascinating is the transference of this legend from East to West with the removal of the saint’s relics from Myra to the southern Italian port of Bari. This transferal in 1087 opened up a whole new career for the Nicholas legend. From Bari, Nicholas legends, rituals, dramas, and dedications spread to just about every country in western Europe.
All these were, of course, brought to a halt by the Protestant Reformation, although in places like England, parts of Germany, and the Low Countries, informal folk customs continued, such as the giving of gifts to children on St. Nicholas Eve. From there the scene shifts to this country and particularly to New York, originally begun as New Netherlands. Jones holds the opinion that the St. Nicholas cult in New York was a late eighteenth and early nineteenth century invention, fostered largely by Washington Irving. He states categorically that the early Dutch settlers of the Hudson Valley were far too Puritanical in their beliefs to have brought any such popish nonsense with them to the new world.
In spite of his vast amounts of research, the author evidently has not researched the records of New Netherlands very widely or he would know that Puritans the early Dutch were not. While it is certainly true that the Director General and the dominies were forever fulminating against pagan and popish festivals (the Dutch brought more than St. Nicholas Day with them), it is equally true that these folk customs died hard and were a source of great embarrassment to both state and church. St. Nicholas Day was an innocent observance, but such days as St. Martin’s, Three Kings, and even Pentecost often saw Dutch citizens (and their black slaves) hauled into court for what might charitably be called intemperate behavior.
On the other hand, there can be no question that by the time the revival of St. Nicholas came with Washington Irving, the traditional New Netherlands observance had completely disappeared. One wonders, however, what was still there to be revived? Jones’ suggestion that the revival was the result of the arrival in New York of recent Dutch immigrants strikes this reviewer as slightly fatuous. Only recently have folk-historians begun to discover the enormous persistence of Dutch customs, expressions, and even language right into the opening years of this century.
The conclusion of the book deals with the transformation of poor old St. Nicholas into Santa Claus—a sad but interesting development as a last chapter in a legend that has lasted for 1,500 years. As Jones points out, in 1979 the Pope officially removed Nicholas from the hagiography, but as Santa Claus he still continues to live, even if it is in what the author has called his “second childhood.”
Howard G. Hageman
New Brunswick Theological Seminary
New Brunswick, New Jersey