The literary development of the “Life” of St Nicholas of Myra (=Santa Claus)
by Roger Pearse
The modern idea of "Santa Claus" derives, at some remove, from the medieval legends of the Greek orthodox St. Nicholas of Myra, recorded in the hagiographical texts known as "Saints’ Lives". Ever since I discovered that none of these vita‘s have been translated into English, I have been looking into the matter. Of course the first thing is to understand what texts actually exist.
Yesterday I discovered a very useful summary of the various versions of the Life of Nicholas of Myra. It appears as appendix ii in A. Blom’s Nikolaas van Myra en zijn tijd, Hilversum, 1998, p.259-262. I obtained this, since it contains a translation (into Dutch) of the Vita per Michaelem, the Life as given by Michael the Archimandrite, as appendix i. This summary would seem to deserve a wider circulation.
Links have been added to English texts on this site. —ed.
A. The oldest biographies and related texts.
- Proclus (390-447 AD), patriarch of Constantinople from 434 to 447, Eulogy (Enkomion) on Nicholas, with reference to the history of the three generals.
According Anrich this is a late text, and not by Proclus. According to Cioffari, it perhaps may be authentic, or from the period 447-550.
- Theodore Anagnostes (? -518), ca 500 Lector in Constantinople, Historia Tripartita (in a manuscript from the 13th century) indicating that Nicholas participated at the council of Nicaea, 325 AD.
According to Anrich the entry is a later interpolation (based on Niketas, see below), but according to Cioffari however it is authentic.
- Anonymous, Life of Nicholas, abbot of the monastery of Zion, bishop of Pinara. This has references to the tomb of Nicholas of Myra.
According to both Anrich and Cioffari this was written about 564. Data from this vita was later mixed with the vita of Nicholas of Myra (the Vita per Michaelem), see below.
- Legend of the three generals (Praxis de Stratelatis)
According to Anrich the version known to us was created between 460 and 580, but, according to Cioffari, between the death of Nicholas and the mid-5th century.
- Eustrathios of Constantinople (?-600), Presbyter of Constantinople, Refutatio, with fragment of the legend of the three generals, quoted from a lost vita.
According to Anrich and Cioffari this is authentic, dating from the 2nd half of the 6th century.
- Michael the Archimandrite, Life, Works and wondrous works of our Father Nikolaos, Bishop of Myra, in Lycia (the Vita per Michaelem – translations exist by Blom in appendix i, and also in German by Heiser.)
According to Anrich this was probably written between 814 and 843; according to Cioffari about 700.
- Methodios (ad Theodorum), a monk (?), Life of Nicholas, which follows Michael’s vita closely.
According to Anrich this dates before 843; according to Cioffari between 817 and 821.
- Another Methodios (?), Eulogy on Nicholas, dated by Anrich and Cioffari after 860.
- John Diaconus of Naples (John the Deacon; 850?), Vita S. Nicolai Episcopi, the first Latin vita, a free adaptation of mainly the vita of Methodios (ad Theodorum). Appears about 880.
- Nicetas of Paphlagonia, bishop (? -890), Eulogy on Nicholas, containing the first mention of participation in the Council of Nicaea, and dating before 890.
- Anonymous, a so-called Synaxariumvita with new motifs, the ‘imprisonment during the last persecution’ and ‘Nicaea’. Genesis about 900.
- Anonymous, the so-called Vita Compilata, a biography in which Michael’s vita of Nicholas of Myra is intertwined with that of Nicholas, abbot of the monastery of Zion, together with elements from Methodios’ Eulogy etc. According Anrich and Cioffari written between 860 and 975.
- Simeon Metaphrastes, writing at Constantinople (?), Life of Nicholas, based on the Compilata, etc. According Anrich and Cioffari written between 975 and 1000. This vita has become the authoritative version for all subsequent biographies.
- Neophytos, priest, monk (1134-?), Eulogy on Nicholas; mainly a collection of miracle stories.
B. Wonder Stories
Some miracles circulated independently, like that of the three generals (Praxis de Stratelatis) and a story about Nicholas’ intervention with Constantine related to taxes imposed on Myra (Praxis de Tributo). Most occur in the biographies or in separate collections. In the thousand years after Nicholas’ death at least 50 of these legends may be counted, first the originals in the vitae etc., then stories about rescues from sea crossing, from Saracen captivity or other emergency, relief of poverty, restitution of stolen goods, cures etc.
The most important are listed below, with only the titles given.
From Michael: infant prodigy, choice as Bishop, three daughters, three generals (short), a rescue of sailors, a grain multiplication (the corn ships), frustration of the wrath of Artemis.
From Methodios (ad Theodorum): the same, except the corn ships.
From the other Methodios (Eulogy): three daughters, a different version of the corn ships, three generals and (as miracles after Nicholas’ death) rescue of Methodios’ father John from a shipwreck, rescue of a Mytilenian priest from the hands of Saracens, deliverance of Petros from captivity.
From the Vita Compilata:
- From the Vita by Michaelem: the rescue of sailors, the corn ships, Artemis.
- From the Eulogy of Methodios: another version of the corn ships, the three generals.
- From Methodios (ad Theodorum) the Mytilenian priest and others (the collection Six miracles, see below.).
- From Nicholas of Zion, a series of healings.
In Metaphrastes: three daughters, the rescue of sailors, Artemis, the three generals, a version of the corn and ships (from Nicholas of Sion): the calming of the storm and the resurrection from death of the sailor Ammonios.
The collection Three miracles (created between 850 and 900): rescue of shipwrecked Demetrios (discussed by Blom in chapter XV), the liberation of a young man named Basil from the hands of Saracens, the rescue of the monk Nicholas from danger at sea.
The collection Six miracles (created after 850/900); rescue of shipwrecked John, the priest of Mytilene, Petros, Demetrios, Basil, Nicholas.
From Neophytos: a collection of more than thirty miracle stories, in addition to the above, plus new additions such as the lone sailor (see Blom chapter VIII), a stray Saracen trader (see Blom chapter XV), return of stolen property (a thieving Shepherd), a bleeding Nicholas picture …
The spread of the story to the west
Apart from the vita of John Diaconus, all the above mentioned texts are Greek. The worship of Nicholas passed to the west through southern Italy. Rome, Calabria, Apulia, Sicily remained under Byzantine influence for hundreds of years after the downfall of the kingdom of the Ostrogoths (552) and the incursions of the Lombards in Italy (568); Rome until the 8th century, Sicily until 9th, Calabria and Apulia until the 11th, when the Normans conquered the area. The Greek colonies there imported Greek saints, including Nicholas. Probably in the 7th century, the history of the three generals was already known in Rome, and from there was inserted into numerous martyrologia and other texts. The vita of John Diaconus obviously played a big role in the dissemination of knowledge about Nicholaos generally, while later, through the transfer of the relics to Bari in Apulia, the movements of the Normans and the Crusades, his worship yet again increased significantly.
C. Later literature
Besides the vita of Metaphrastes, the vita of John Diaconus was the source of a number of later vitae, such as those in the Golden Legend of Jacobus de Voragine (? -1298) and the Catalogus Sanctorum of Peter de Natalibus (second half of 14th century).
The Breviarium Romanum (1568) and the Martyrologium Romanum (1586) have derived a number of miracle stories from this source.
1620. A. Beatillo, Historia della Vita, Miracoli, Traslatione … di San Niccolo. An indiscriminate collection of miracle stories.
17th century. Italian and French use of Beatillo’s Historia.
1699. Le Nain the Tillemont, Memoires pour servir d l’histoire ecclésiastique des six premiers siècles (a beginning of a critical examination of the available material).
1701. A. Baillet, Les Vies des Saints (following Tillemont).
1732. Article in Le Grand Dictionnaire historique (Moreri) expresses great doubt on numerous elements from the vitae.
1740. Le Quien, Oriens Christianus, opposes criticism (as in, 1745, J. de l’Isle).
1747. Review committee for the Roman Breviary, but does nothing.
1751. N.C. Falcone, Sancti Nicolai confessoris et pontificis et celeberrimi thaumaturgi Acta Primigenia Nuper detecta. He believes, on the basis of sloppy reasoning, that Nicholas of Myra is a mystification of Nicholas of Sion, whose vita he said that he discovered in 1720 in the Vatican library.
1753. N. Putignani, Vindiciae vitae et gestorum Thaumaturgi S. Nicolai, Diatriba, and 1771 Istoria della Vita. Refutes the arguments of Falcone. A weak work, like J. S. Assemani’s treatment of Falcone’s thesis in his Kalendaria (1755).
19th century. This century yielded little progress on the problem of Nicholas (Anrich, 202vv.). Most work was devotional (Cioffari, 289vv.). Cioffari devotes an interesting chapter to some Russian studies.
1886 is noteworthy only for an uncritical, popular work of J. Laroche, Vie de S. Nicolas.
Blom’s bibliography covers the 20th century.
-  Anrich, G., Hagios Nikolaos, Texte und Untersuchungen, 2 Bnde, Berlin 1913/1917. Online here.
-  G. Cioffari, S. Nicola nella Critica Storica, Bari 1987. References by Blom to “Cioffari” always mean this work, which I have not seen.
- An English translation of this item exists: I. Sevcenko and N. Sevcenko, The Life of Saint Nicholas of Sion, Holy Cross Press, 1999, ISBN 978-0917653032.
By Roger Pearse, From my diary, February 3, 2015