Was St. Nicholas A Real Person?

St Nicholas prayer card
Card from St Nicholas Church
North Walsham, Norfolk, UK
St. Nicholas Center Collection

Some say St. Nicholas existed only in legend, without any reliable historical record. Legends usually do grow out of real, actual events, though they may be embellished to make more interesting stories. Many of the St. Nicholas stories seem to be truth interwoven with imagination. However, the following facts of the life of St. Nicholas could contain some part of historical truth. They provide a clear sense of his personal characteristics which are further elaborated in other narratives.

  • Nicholas' birth in Patara

    Though the exact date is not known, it is believed to have occurred between AD 260 and 280. The place, Patara, can be historically grounded.
  • Dowries for the poor girls

    This story, distinct to Nicholas, can be regarded as historical in its essence. There are three very ancient accounts which only differ in regard to the number of maidens and other detail. This event reveals important aspects of St. Nicholas's personality, namely, his charitable nature and humility. This story is not found in hagiographic accounts of other saints' lives.
  • Election as Bishop of Myra, though not yet a priest

    Unusual though it was for a non-ordained person to be nominated to the position of bishop, two sources corroborate the story. Because it is so unusual, (such cases are very rare—perhaps Saint Ambrose and Thomas Becket are the only other ones), it adds credence to the story as it is not something that would be made up. *
  • Participation in the Council of Nicaea

    Although Bishop Nicholas does not appear on all lists of attenders, his name appears on the oldest Greek list and on five other lists. The stories related to Nicholas at the Council are consistent with his energetic character as revealed in other accounts.
  • Persuading Bishop Theognis

    Bishop Theognis of Nicaea was one of the supporters of Arius, whose position on the nature of the Trinity was discredited by the Council of Nicaea. However, Nicholas has been credited with working for the unity of the church and swaying Theognis to sign the agreement.
  • Saving three condemned innocents

    This story is the oldest and most genuine recorded episode from the life of St. Nicholas. Historical documentation confirms the many references to place names and people. Some versions expand the account to include the story of the three generals.
  • Intervention in favor of the unjustly jailed

    The outstanding figures in this solidly structured story are well known in other contemporary accounts, where they are portrayed in similar ways.
  • Destruction of the Temple of Artemis

    This account reveals knowledge of detail concerning the temple which would have been unknown to a writer several centuries later had it not been based on an account coming out of the people and traditions of that city.
  • Mariners saved during a tempest

    The episode is important to explain the origin of his wide-spread patronage to sailors and other sea voyagers, though it may be better suited to Nicholas of Sion.
  • Travel to Constantinople to have taxes reduced

    This account could be Nicholas of Myra, if some details are regarded as additions by the writer as was often the custom in writing hagiographic accounts.

The earliest reference to St. Nicholas of Myra comes from the late 700s-about 250 years after his death. The life of St. Nicholas of Sion (a 6th century abbot of a mountain monastery near Myra) describes a visit "going down to the metropolis of Myra, [Nicholas of Sion] went off to the martyrium of the glorious Saint Nicholas." This reliable witness, written by a close associate of Nicholas of Sion shortly after his death, roots Nicholas of Myra in history and reveals his status as a revered saint.

The ancient sources cited to substantiate this information are Michael the Archimandrite, Sinaitic and Ethiopian manuscripts, Gratianus' Decretum, Theodore the Lector, Andrew of Crete, Eustratios of Constantinople, AD 583; Passionarium Romanum, 650 AD; and Praxis de tributo.

Saint Nicholas: Early Evidence
A look at early sources, including a summary of Michael the Archimandrite's Life, Works, and Miracles of our Holy Father Nicholas, Archbishop of Myra in Lycia

Digging back to the Real St. Nicholas
An interview with Adam English, author of The Saint who would be Santa Claus

More information in other sections

Classic and Primary Source Material
The oldest surviving 5th century account, Stratelatis, Andrew of Crete's 8th century Encomium, Michael the Archimandrite's 9th century life of Nicholas, and more
The Real Face of St. Nicholas
Modern forensic reconstruction from 2004 compared with traditional iconographic images

* Nicholas, who was raised by his uncle, an abbot, probably became a monk before his pilgrimage to the Holy Land. Selected as a Brother to become the Bishop of Myra, he would have been ordained a deacon, then priest in quick succession before ordination as a bishop. He would not have served as a deacon or priest.

  • Cioffari, P. Gerardo, O.P., "The Truth About Saint Nicholas: The Most Ancient Texts in the Light of Recent Historical Criticism," Bollettino di San Nicola, November-December 1997
  • Cioffari, P. Gerardo, O.P., Saint Nicholas: His Life, the Translation of his Relics and his Basilica in Bari, translated by Philip L. Barnes, Centro Studi Nicolaiani, Bari, Italy, 1994
  • Seal, Jeremy, Nicholas: The Epic Journey from Saint to Santa Claus Bloomsbury, New York & London, 2005
    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

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