On This Day in Ancient History – Santa Claus Died
Let me be the first to say it: Megyn Kelly was correct. Santa Claus was white. Well, he was probably white-passing at least. Santa Claus was born in Asia Minor in the year 270 AD. “Asia Minor” is what historians call Turkey when they want to sound old-timey. Let me backtrack.
The Santa Claus myth is based on a very real man named Saint Nicholas of Myra. Nicholas was born around 270 AD in Myra, Asia Minor (current Demre, Turkey). He was born into the Roman Empire during the reign of Emperor Claudius II. That emperor died during a pandemic shortly thereafter. (Pandemics are hell on empires.)
Saint Nicholas probably had some Greek lineage. Other than that, not much is known about him. Most of what is known about him is mythological and possibly untrue. Most famously, he is said to have saved three sisters from a life of prostitution. On three consecutive nights, Saint Nicholas dropped a bag of gold coins into their house. Their father used the bags of coins to pay a dowry for each daughter and find them suitable husbands. Another story claims that a butcher killed three children and pickled them in order to sell them as pork. Saint Nicholas is said to have resurrected these poor salty children.
Giving Gifts and Sliding Down Chimneys
The story of Saint Nicholas and the bags of gold is one of the most well-known stories about the original Santa Claus. We know of the myth and several other myths about St. Nicholas because of Michael the Archimandrite who was writing in the 800s AD. He wrote about Nicholas’s life nearly 500 years after the man died, so you should take what he says skeptically. However, a myth is often as good as a man.
Saint Nicholas is said to have performed other miracles. At one point, his region of the Roman Empire was suffering from a famine. Nicholas found a ship full of wheat. He asked the sailors to give the wheat to the hungry. They were worried because the emperor was expecting a specific amount of wheat. Nicholas persuaded them to give a portion of the wheat to the poor. When the emperor weighed their wheat, they had the full amount. It’s a legend that clearly evokes Jesus feeding the five thousand.
Saint Nicholas has been celebrated as Sinterklaas in the Netherlands for hundreds of years. Dutch immigrants brought the traditions to the New World in the 1600s. By that point, Nicholas was known for supposedly giving gifts in secret. He was said to leave coins in your shoes if you left your shoes out for him. This practice is still maintained on his feast day, December 6th.
Medieval-era nuns supposedly left clothes and food on the doorsteps of poor citizens. Furthermore, Dutch sailors would buy gifts on Nicholas’ feast day and share them with their families.
It’s not known exactly how Saint Nicholas died, but he is believed to have been buried in his hometown of Myra. Pieces of his body (relics) were sent to various churches because body parts of saints are believed to be holy. Radiocarbon dating of a few fragments have determined that at least some of the relics are from a 4th century Turkish (Asia Minor-ish) man. It’s definitely possible they are pieces of the body of the original Santa Claus.
However he died, he is traditionally said to have died on this day (December 6th) in 343 AD. Saint Nicholas is dead. Long live Santa Claus.