‘Twas the night before Christmas, when all thro’ the house
Not a creature was stirring, not even a mouse;
The stockings were hung by the chimney with care,
In hopes that St. Nicholas soon would be there. – Clement C. Moore
How did the 4th century Greek bishop whose feast is celebrated today become the symbol of the spirit of Christmas in a large part of the world, and what in the world does it have to do with prostitution? The answer to both questions is the same: Nicholas of Myra (270 – December 6th, 346) was a very wealthy but very devout man with a reputation for both extreme generosity and the ability to work miracles, and one of his most famous deeds is the source of both an important part of the Santa Claus legend and Nicholas’ designation as the patron saint of prostitutes. This busy and popular saint is also the patron of archers, children, merchants, sailors, students and repentant thieves, plus Russia and a number of cities including Aberdeen, Amsterdam and Liverpool, but for the purposes of this column we’ll concentrate on his association with Christmas and harlots.
In Greece, Saint Nicholas is sometimes called Nikolaos Thaumaturgos (Nicholas the Miracle-worker) because of the many miracles legend attributes to him, which include feeding his city on a small portion of wheat during a famine and resurrecting three children murdered by a Sweeny Todd-like evil butcher. His remains are believed to exude a fragrant liquid with miraculous properties, which is drawn forth every year on this day. But his popularity and greatest fame derives not from these miracles, but from the mundane acts of kindness he was well-known for, such as dropping coins in the shoes of poor parishioners left outside to dry overnight. Obviously, this practice is the source of the legend about Saint Nicholas leaving presents in children’s shoes (later stockings), but his association with whores is related to another of his legendary traits – that of bringing presents down chimneys.
According to the story, a formerly wealthy man who had fallen on bad times had three daughters, but could not afford dowries for them. Because of this they would not be able to marry, and in the absence of other marketable skills would be forced into prostitution to support themselves. But on the night before the eldest daughter came of age, Saint Nicholas threw a purse full of gold coins through the window so she would have a dowry. He repeated the gift a year later on the night before the second daughter came of age, and the third year the father decided to lie in wait so as to thank his daughters’ unknown benefactor. But Saint Nicholas wished to remain anonymous, so he climbed upon the roof and dropped the bag down the chimney instead. Now, it seems to me that since Nicholas actually prevented the girls from becoming hookers it would be more appropriate to consider him the patron saint of those who help unwilling prostitutes to leave the trade, but I suppose Christian whores were glad to be given a patron as loveable and highly-regarded as Saint Nick so I won’t split hairs.
During the late Middle Ages, nuns of some orders honored the saint on his feast day by leaving baskets of food and clothes on the doorsteps of the poor during the night, and sailors of western Europe attended church services followed by “Nicholas fairs” at which unusual goods such as spices and oranges were sold; the sailors would buy treats for their wives and children at such fairs. By the Renaissance these observances evolved into the tradition of giving gifts to children on Saint Nicholas Day, and in the Netherlands this day (rather than Christmas) eventually became the primary occasion for gift-giving. The Dutch name for the Saint is Sinterklaas (a corruption of Sint Nikolaas) and the mythology surrounding him is a combination of legends about the historical bishop and traditions about the god Odin; like the god he is elderly and white-bearded, rides a magical horse and has omniscient knowledge of the behavior of individual mortals, but he wears a bishop’s robes and distributes largess on the eve of December 6th. These Dutch traditions spread to neighboring countries, and the French Pere Noel and English Father Christmas eventually absorbed his white beard and propensity for gift-giving (though on Christmas Eve rather than St. Nicholas Eve), largely through association with the American Santa Claus. Indeed, the name “Santa Claus” is simply an Anglicized pronunciation of the Dutch “Sinterklaas” which originated among the Dutch settlers in New York. In some parts of Germany both Christmas and Saint Nicholas’ Day are celebrated (though December 6th is of lesser importance), and this is also true of American cities with a strong German background such as Cincinnati, Cleveland and Milwaukee.
The Saint’s modern image began to take shape in New York and New England of the late 18th century from a fusion of the Dutch Sinterklaas and the English Father Christmas. In 1809 Washington Irving became the first writer to describe the combined figure (in his History of New York), and in 1823 his friend Clement Clark Moore collected many of the now-familiar traditions in his famous poem, “A Visit from Saint Nicholas”; here we see the reindeer-drawn sleigh, coming down the chimney, presents in stockings, fur-trimmed red suit, etc, though Moore still prefers the name “Saint Nicholas” to the doubly-corrupt “Santa Claus”. In the latter part of the century editorial cartoonist Thomas Nast published a number of drawings of the jolly old saint, and by the turn of the century the image and mythology we know so well today was firmly established not only in the U.S. where it had originated, but also in many other countries (where it merged with or supplanted traditional depictions of Father Christmas, Papa Noel etc).
But like all living mythologies, that surrounding Saint Nicholas (or “Santa” to use his modern name) continues to grow. Mrs. Claus appeared in the mid-19th century, the elves evolved from older traditions about Saint Nicholas’ servants such as Zwarte Piet (“Black Peter”), and the saint’s temperament has mellowed so much that nobody receives coal or switches any more despite the fact that modern children are arguably far less well-behaved than those of times past. Writers of stories, songs and television shows have added new elements to the story, and some (such as Rudolph the red-nosed reindeer) have become extremely popular. Even the North American Aerospace Defense Command (NORAD) has made a contribution by tracking Santa’s Christmas Eve progress on radar every year since 1955; now the organization even has a website dedicated to the purpose.
Obviously, few modern people (and virtually no children) know that the jolly old fat man in the red suit has a warm spot in his heart for whores, and it’s probably better that way since it’s really none of their business. But every December there are a few sneaky signs such as cartoons in Playboy, silly jokes (Q: Why is Santa so jolly? A: He knows where all the bad girls live), escorts and strippers treating themselves (and Santa) to photos in his lap (guilty!), and playing of Eartha Kitt’s classic gold digger’s anthem “Santa Baby”. And I know for a fact that I’m not remotely the only member of our profession who employs some of her generous income every Yuletide season to assist Santa by donating to his helpers with their kettles outside stores and by providing toys for his chief favorites, the children, through programs like Toys for Tots.