Saint Nicholas - Bishop, not a dwarf

Artur Stelmasiak

Formerly the Bishop of Myra was one of the most important Christian saints. Today it has become a ‘saint of commerce’. The present times have deprived him of his vestment, mitre and crosier. As you may easily guess it is the American promotion specialists that invented ‘a saint dwarf’. Today, we can say that he is a saint who has been transformed in McDonald’s. Advent has not begun yet and on the first days of November we can see an army of Santa Clauses in shops and shop windows. They promote new cellular phones, DVDs, computers and thousands of toys. They are everywhere. You can see them on television, in newspapers, advertisements. The image of Santa Claus is overwhelming. We have Santa Claus-shaped Christmas tree ornaments, teddy bears, balloons and even lollipops and chocolates. Every year Saint Nicholas is indefatigably a commercial hit. Most saints can envy him his popularity. However, the problem is that in case of Saint Nicholas we are dealing with the biggest fake of all times. Saint Nicholas of Myra might be looking from Heaven at what is happening nowadays and becomes astonished since his popularity is illusory.

Dwarf versus bishop

Recently, Nicholas has become only a grown dwarf that brings presents and not a saint patron through the intercession of who people ask for graces. Formerly the Bishop of Myra was one of the most important Christian saints. Today it has become a ‘saint of commerce’. The present times have deprived him of the vestment, mitre and crosier. In the popular culture the historical St Nicholas has lost to the fairy-tale person in disguise who comes from Laponia. As a dwarf from Disney’s films he has a powerful lobby and hardly anyone remembers Saint Nicholas. ‘The West has commercialised the figure completely. The world does not know Saint Nicholas’, thinks Grzegorz Polak, a columnist and the author of ‘Ksiegi Swietych’ [The Book of the Saints]. ‘One of the feature writers defined it well when he wrote that two drunken ‘Santa Claus men’ were walking in the street. We can clearly see how much the figure of St Nicholas has become devalued’, Mr Polak says.
Saint Nicholas has been so much forgotten that he needs a radical defence. That’s why, a campaign entitled ‘Let us defend true St Nicholas’ began in the Internet several years ago. Its originators thought that St Nicholas was an example of an extraordinary impudent and ruthless manipulation of religious symbols in advertisements. Therefore, they organised a protest ‘against this piece of kitsch that attacks children in the form of annual invasion of mutated dwarfs called santa clauses.’ One should do something to restore true St Nicholas, who was a historical figure, and who is not a creation of the immensely developed market’, Grzegorz Polak thinks. Today it is hard to estimate whether the campaign was successful but we can see a decrease in the number of dwarfs, at least in the Catholic circles. Even if we meet St Nicholas giving gifts in churches he, as a bishop, has a mitre and crosier. ‘This is a step in the right direction’, Mr Polak says.

The McDonaldization of sanctity

How did it happen that a holy and generous bishop has become first of all a patron of merchants who increase their profits before Christmas thanks to his image?
As you can guess it is the American promotion specialists that invented ‘a saint dwarf’. Today, we can say that he is a saint who has been transformed in McDonald’s. The process of St Nicholas’ commercialisation has lasted almost one hundred years. And that’s why it will be hard to change it. It began in 1809 when the writer and folklore lover Washington Irving described a Dutch custom connected with St Nicholas in his book ‘A History of New York’. Nicholas was called Santa Claus and did not wear his bishop’s dress. Several years later one of the New York papers published a text depicting Santa Claus in a sleigh drawn by reindeers. The hero himself was a merry, short person, with a large belly. The present image of Santa Claus - red coat and cap - was worked out in 1930 by Fred Mizen following the order of the Coca-Cola concern. In its campaign Coca-Cola showed a broad-shouldered jovial old man with a white moustache and long beard, dressed in a red and white gown. Then a new curriculum vitae was written, giving such details as the number of reindeers in his sleigh and their names. One can say that the historical St Nicholas has been experiencing the effects of that advertising propaganda till these days. The image of St Nicholas is used for commercial reasons in the whole world. In advertisements the figure of Santa Claus has already won the Asian countries. He has even reached communist China.

The saint who gives gifts

During his life Bishop of Myra was famous for his generosity and noble heart. Nicholas was born probably around 270 AD in Lycia, in the place called Patara, as the only son of affluent Christian parents. From his youth he was known to be very pious and sensitive to human suffering. After his parents’ deaths he eagerly shared his riches with the poor.
One of the oldest legends says that he helped his neighbour who was very poor and could not give any proper dowry for his three daughters. No lad wanted to marry them because they were very poor and had no dowry. Their neighbour was Nicholas. Under the cover of night Nicholas threw a purse filled with gold coins through the window opening onto his poor neighbour’s floor and he ran away very quickly. Thus St Nicholas is seen an example of Christian goodness. People remembered that he did good deeds in secret, discreetly, without making a show and seeking his glory’, says Rev. Professor Jozef Naumowicz, a historian and expert in the early Christianity. In his ‘Divine Comedy’ Dante himself used the story about the holy bishop. Becoming Bishop of Myra (Demre in the present-day Turkey) he won the hearts of his faithful by his zealous ministry and care for the material needs of his faithful.

What about the gifts?

St Nicholas was associated with the custom of gift-giving only in the 12th century. In the beginning there were scholarships and allowances given by the schools named after St Nicholas. With time the custom was changed and concerned gifts for children as well as for all family members. As early as in the 15th century there was a custom of building ‘St Nicholas’ boats’ in which the saint was to put gifts. With time the boats were replaced by shoes and socks or in the Protestant regions by Advent places with gifts. The figure of the historical saint was soon mixed with local beliefs and legends. Therefore, in Holland St Nicholas, in bishop’s dress, was depicted first on a donkey and then on a ship and white horse. In the Scandinavian countries it ‘collaborates’ with the gnomes. In Russia he is called Grandfather Frost and appears with a snowflake. Although our testimonies of St Nicholas are scarce he is undoubtedly a historical figure. The unselfish love of this saint remains a universal and timeless symbol of Christian culture. It is worth remembering that in order not to commercialise St Nicholas and see only what is external and what has nothing to do with the long tradition of the feast’, Rev. Prof. Naumowicz thinks.

Popular patron

St Nicholas is the patron saint of Greece, Russia and Lorraine. But first of all, the Hansa cities as well as Amsterdam, Ankora, Bari, Freiburg and New York chose him to be their patron saint. Numerous cities all over the world have been named after St Nicholas. It was estimated that in medieval Germany there were 4,000 - 5,000 churches and altarpieces dedicated to St Nicholas. He is the patron saint of young women who want to get married, women who want to have children, newly-born babies, seamen, rafters, dockers, merchants, millers, bakers, butchers, tailors, weavers, travellers and pilgrims, prisoners, lawyers, notaries, wine and coin merchants, owners and beggars. He belongs to the Fourteen Holy Helpers.

St Nicholas on the sea

Every ninth May, the anniversary of bringing St Nicholas’ relics to Bari, a special celebration is held. The most solemn service is held on the sea. On the morning of May 8 the relics of the saint are carried on the most beautiful boat on the sea in front of the city with many boats and small ships, filled with people and richly decorated, following. When the boast brings the statue to the shore, it is further carried on a special cart through the festively decorated streets. This sea procession is followed by festivities and fireworks. The next day special services are held in churches and the main celebration is conducted in the basilica of Bari.

St Nicholas of Myra

Saint Nicholas of Myra might be looking from Heaven at what is happening nowadays and becomes astonished since his popularity is illusory.

"Niedziela" 48/2007

Editor: Tygodnik Katolicki "Niedziela", ul. 3 Maja 12, 42-200 Czestochowa, Polska
Editor-in-chief: Fr Jaroslaw Grabowski • E-mail: