The stockings were hung by the chimney with care,
In hopes that St. Nicholas soon would be there

Why pick on Saint Nick?

The small town of Kale in Turkey has a few claims to fame. There are some lovely Roman ruins around town; one of Turkey’s major industrial conglomerates, the Kale Group, is based there; and the city surrounds the ancient city of Myra, jewel of the Lycian Alliance. Myra was part of early Christendom, and its bishophric produced a man of renown in the fourth century: Nicholas of Bari. Little is known about Nicholas’ life; veneration began relatively soon after his death, and to this day, his remains are said to miraculously generate water ("manna of Saint Nicholas") held to have curative properties. Nicholas is one of the most important saints in several Orthodox traditions; he is the patron saint of sailors, pawnbrokers, children, and thieves. And yet in America, he is, by and large, remembered thanks to two lines from one poem, written by a farmer named Henry Livingstone and for a hundred years published under the name of Clement Moore:

The stockings were hung by the chimney with care,
In hopes that St. Nicholas soon would be there

Why pick on Saint Nick? Nicholas of Myra was a noble fellow (if a small one; an examination of his remains determined that Nicholas was no more than five feet tall, short even for his day) — patron saint of the falsely accused, even after the great ecumenical calendar shakeouts of the 1960s and ‘70s. But why Saint Nicholas rather than Saint Cosmas or Saint Gregory? Why not look to northern climes and expect a holiday visit from Saint Innocent of Alaska? The answer comes down to pre-Revolutionary pride. Philadelphia had its Sons of Saint Tammany (originally the "Sons of King Tammany"); the Native American leader had become something of a folk legend in Pennsylvania after his death, eventually inspiring the first opera written on American soil, the libretto of which is now lost. Eventually Saint Tammany societies would spring up elsewhere, including the New York political machine that dominated city hall politics for eighty years. But initially New York’s residents wanted their own anti-English, all-American fraternal society; Philadelphia’s simply wouldn’t do. And so they settled on Saint Nicholas; his saint’s day was a holiday in the Netherlands, and so New Amsterdam would take him as their own.

Washington Irving, a Son of Saint Nicholas since 1809, then invented out of whole cloth various traditions involving Saint Nicholas, a plump, pipe-smoking burgher, in his Knickerbocker’s History of New York. Among these was the fact that he came down chimneys to give gifts to the good boys and girls of New York’s Protestant elite. Nicholas’ role as patron saint of pawnbrokers stems from a story involving the bishop secretly providing gold to pay a poor man’s daughter’s dowry (thus, in some tellings, giving rise to the three golden balls on pawnbrokers’ signs, although the symbol of Lombard banking is of long standing and uncertain origin). Irving’s invention of purportedly traditional Christmas celebrations, a modest gift-giving tradition involving Saint Nicholas’s Day, and a feast day on December 6, conveniently close to Christmas, led to Livingstone’s invention, and in turn to a thousand holiday television specials and Macy’s parade extras.

Santa-haters world-wide can relax (even if they don’t go as far as possibly non-existent Japanese) — they can hate on the fat guy without demeaning the name of a fifth century holy man. To underscore the degree to which "Saint Nicholas" and "Saint Nick" are no longer one in the same, the good people of Demre, Turkey, coterminous with Nicholas’s Myra, took down the Bishop’s statue. Nicholas, patron saint of Russia and Greece, venerated throughout the Orthodox world, was being represented by a jolly fat man in fur carrying a sack. As the sons of Saint Nicholas put it, "Saint Nicholas, my dear good friend! / To serve you ever was my end." I hope the Demre city council enjoys their coal.