Or: How Saint Nicholas came to live at the North Pole
Santa Claus, also known as Father Christmas, Saint Nicholas, Saint Nick, Kris Kringle, or simply Santa, is a legendary figure originating in Western Christian culture who is said to bring gifts to the homes of well-behaved children on the night of Christmas Eve (24 December) or during the early morning hours of Christmas Day (25 December). The modern Santa Claus grew out of traditions surrounding the historical Saint Nicholas (a fourth-century Greek bishop and gift-giver of Myra), the British figure of Father Christmas, and the Dutch figure of Sinterklaas (himself also based on Saint Nicholas). Some maintain Santa Claus also absorbed elements of the Germanic god Wodan, who was associated with the pagan midwinter event of Yule and led the Wild Hunt, a ghostly procession through the sky.
Santa Claus is generally depicted as a portly, jolly, white-bearded man—sometimes with spectacles—wearing a red coat with white fur collar and cuffs, white-fur-cuffed red trousers, red hat with white fur, and black leather belt and boots and carrying a bag full of gifts for children. This image became popular in the United States and Canada in the 19th century due to the significant influence of the 1823 poem “A Visit from St. Nicholas” and of caricaturist and political cartoonist Thomas Nast. This image has been maintained and reinforced through song, radio, television, children’s books, films, and advertising.
Santa Claus is said to make lists of children throughout the world, categorizing them according to their behavior, and to deliver presents, including toys and candy, to all of the well-behaved children in the world, and coal to all the misbehaving children, on the night of Christmas Eve. He accomplishes this feat with the aid of his elves, who make the toys in his workshop at the North Pole, and his flying reindeer, who pull his sleigh. He is commonly portrayed as living at the North Pole, and laughing in a way that sounds like “ho ho ho”.
Saint Nicholas of Myra was a 4th-century Greek Christian bishop of Myra (now Demre) in Lycia. Nicholas was famous for his generous gifts to the poor, in particular presenting the three impoverished daughters of a pious Christian with dowries so that they would not have to become prostitutes. He was very religious from an early age and devoted his life entirely to Christianity. In continental Europe (more precisely the Netherlands, Belgium, Austria, the Czech Republic and Germany) he is usually portrayed as a bearded bishop in canonical robes.
In 1087, while the Greek Christian inhabitants of Myra were subjugated by newly arrived Muslim Turkish conquerors, and soon after their Greek Orthodox church had been declared to be in schism by the Catholic church (1054 AD), a group of merchants from the Italian city of Bari removed the major bones of Nicholas’s skeleton from his sarcophagus in the Greek church in Myra. Over the objection of the monks of Myra the sailors took the bones of St. Nicholas to Bari, where they are now enshrined in the Basilica di San Nicola. Sailors from Bari collected just half of Nicholas’ skeleton, leaving all the minor fragments in the church sarcophagus. These were later taken by Venetian sailors during the First Crusade and placed in Venice, where a church to St. Nicholas, the patron of sailors, was built on the San Nicolò al Lido. St. Nicholas’ vandalized sarcophagus can still be seen in the St. Nicholas Church in Myra. This tradition was confirmed in two important scientific investigations of the relics in Bari and Venice, which revealed that the relics in the two Italian cities belong to the same skeleton. Saint Nicholas was later claimed as a patron saint of many diverse groups, from archers, sailors, and children to pawnbrokers. He is also the patron saint of both Amsterdam and Moscow.
During the Middle Ages, often on the evening before his name day of 6 December, children were bestowed gifts in his honour. This date was earlier than the original day of gifts for the children, which moved in the course of the Reformation and its opposition to the veneration of saints in many countries on the 24th and 25 December. The custom of gifting to children at Christmas has been propagated by Martin Luther as an alternative to the previous very popular gift custom on St. Nicholas, to focus the interest of the children to Christ instead of the veneration of saints. Martin Luther first suggested the Christkind as the bringer of gifts. But Nicholas remained popular as gifts bearer for the people.
Father Christmas dates back as far as 16th century in England during the reign of Henry VIII, when he was pictured as a large man in green or scarlet robes lined with fur. He typified the spirit of good cheer at Christmas, bringing peace, joy, good food and wine and revelry. As England no longer kept the feast day of Saint Nicholas on 6 December, the Father Christmas celebration was moved to the 25th of December to coincide with Christmas Day. The Victorian revival of Christmas included Father Christmas as the emblem of ‘good cheer’. His physical appearance was variable, with one famous image being John Leech’s illustration of the “Ghost of Christmas Present” in Charles Dickens‘s festive classic A Christmas Carol (1843), as a great genial man in a green coat lined with fur who takes Scrooge through the bustling streets of London on the current Christmas morning, sprinkling the essence of Christmas onto the happy populace.
Dutch, Belgian and Swiss folklore
In the Netherlands and Belgium, the character of Santa Claus has to compete with that of Sinterklaas, Santa’s presumed progenitor. Santa Claus is known as de Kerstman in Dutch (“the Christmas man”) and Père Noël (“Father Christmas”) in French. But for children in the Netherlands Sinterklaas remains the predominant gift-giver in December; 36% of the Dutch only give presents on Sinterklaas evening or the day itself (December 6), whereas Christmas (December 25) is used by another 21% to give presents. Some 26% of the Dutch population gives presents on both days. In Belgium, Sinterklaas day presents are offered exclusively to children, whereas on Christmas Day, all ages may receive presents. Sinterklaas’ assistants are called “Zwarte Pieten” (in Dutch, “Père Fouettard” in French), so they are not elves. In Switzerland, Père Fouettard accompanies Père Noël in the French speaking region, while the sinister Schmutzli accompanies Samichlaus in the Swiss German region. Schmutzli carries a twig broom to spank the naughty children.
Germanic paganism, Wodan, and Christianization
Prior to Christianization, the Germanic peoples (including the English) celebrated a midwinter event called Yule (Old English geola or giuli). With the Christianization of Germanic Europe, numerous traditions were absorbed from Yuletide celebrations into modern Christmas. During this period, supernatural and ghostly occurrences were said to increase in frequency, such as the Wild Hunt, a ghostly procession through the sky. The leader of the wild hunt is frequently attested as the god Wodan (Norse Odin), bearing (among many names) the names Jólnir, meaning “Yule figure”, and Langbarðr, meaning “long-beard”, in Old Norse.
Wodan’s role during the Yuletide period has been theorized as having influenced concepts of St. Nicholas in a variety of facets, including his long white beard and his gray horse for nightly rides (compare Odin’s horse Sleipnir) or his reindeer in North American tradition. Folklorist Margaret Baker maintains that “the appearance of Santa Claus or Father Christmas, whose day is the 25th of December, owes much to Odin, the old blue-hooded, cloaked, white-bearded Giftbringer of the north, who rode the midwinter sky on his eight-footed steed Sleipnir, visiting his people with gifts. … Odin, transformed into Father Christmas, then Santa Claus, prospered with St Nicholas and the Christchild, became a leading player on the Christmas stage.”
Early representations of the gift-giver from Church history and folklore, notably St Nicholas (known in Dutch as Sinterklaas), merged with the English character Father Christmas to create the character known to Americans and the rest of the English-speaking world as “Santa Claus” (a phonetic derivation of “Sinterklaas”).
In the English and later British colonies of North America, and later in the United States, British and Dutch versions of the gift-giver merged further. For example, in Washington Irving‘s History of New York (1809), Sinterklaas was Americanized into “Santa Claus” (a name first used in the American press in 1773) but lost his bishop’s apparel, and was at first pictured as a thick-bellied Dutch sailor with a pipe in a green winter coat. Irving’s book was a lampoon of the Dutch culture of New York, and much of this portrait is his joking invention.
In 1821, the book A New-year’s present, to the little ones from five to twelve was published in New York. It contained Old Santeclaus with Much Delight, an anonymous poem describing Santeclaus on a reindeer sleigh, bringing presents to children. Some modern ideas of Santa Claus seemingly became canon after the anonymous publication of the poem “A Visit From St. Nicholas” (better known today as “The Night Before Christmas”) in the Troy, New York, Sentinel on 23 December 1823; Clement Clarke Moore later claimed authorship, though some scholars argue that Henry Livingston, Jr. (who died nine years before Moore’s claim) was the author. St. Nick is described as being “chubby and plump, a right jolly old elf” with “a little round belly”, that “shook when he laughed like a bowlful of jelly”, in spite of which the “miniature sleigh” and “tiny reindeer” still indicate that he is physically diminutive. The reindeer were also named: Dasher, Dancer, Prancer, Vixen, Comet, Cupid, Dunder and Blixem (Dunder and Blixem came from the old Dutch words for thunder and lightning, which were later changed to the more German sounding Donner and Blitzen).
By 1845 “Kris Kringle” was a common variant of Santa in parts of the United States. A magazine article from 1853, describing American Christmas customs to British readers, refers to children hanging up their stockings on Christmas Eve for “a fabulous personage” whose name varies: in Pennsylvania he is usually called “Krishkinkle”, but in New York he is “St. Nicholas” or “Santa Claus”. The author quotes Moore’s poem in its entirety, saying that its descriptions apply to Krishkinkle too.
As the years passed, Santa Claus evolved in popular culture into a large, heavyset person. One of the first artists to define Santa Claus’s modern image was Thomas Nast, an American cartoonist of the 19th century. In 1863, a picture of Santa illustrated by Nast appeared in Harper’s Weekly.
Thomas Nast immortalized Santa Claus with an illustration for the 3 January 1863 issue of Harper’s Weekly. Santa was dressed in an American flag, and had a puppet with the name “Jeff” written on it, reflecting its Civil War context.
The story that Santa Claus lives at the North Pole may also have been a Nast creation. His Christmas image in the Harper’s issue dated 29 December 1866 was a collage of engravings titled Santa Claus and His Works, which included the caption “Santa Claussville, N.P.” A color collection of Nast’s pictures, published in 1869, had a poem also titled “Santa Claus and His Works” by George P. Webster, who wrote that Santa Claus’s home was “near the North Pole, in the ice and snow”. The tale had become well known by the 1870s. A boy from Colorado writing to the children’s magazine The Nursery in late 1874 said, “If we did not live so very far from the North Pole, I should ask Santa Claus to bring me a donkey.”
The idea of a wife for Santa Claus may have been the creation of American authors, beginning in the mid-19th century. In 1889, the poet Katharine Lee Bates popularized Mrs. Claus in the poem “Goody Santa Claus on a Sleigh Ride”.
“Is There a Santa Claus?” was the title of an editorial appearing in the 21 September 1897 edition of The New York Sun. The editorial, which included the famous reply “Yes, Virginia, there is a Santa Claus“, has become an indelible part of popular Christmas lore in the United States and Canada.
L. Frank Baum‘s The Life and Adventures of Santa Claus, a 1902 children’s book, further popularized Santa Claus. Much of Santa Claus’s mythos was not set in stone at the time, leaving Baum to give his “Neclaus” (Necile’s Little One) a wide variety of immortal support, a home in the Laughing Valley of Hohaho, and ten reindeer—who could not fly, but leapt in enormous, flight-like bounds. Claus’s immortality was earned, much like his title (“Santa”), decided by a vote of those naturally immortal. This work also established Claus’s motives: a happy childhood among immortals. When Ak, Master Woodsman of the World, exposes him to the misery and poverty of children in the outside world, Santa strives to find a way to bring joy into the lives of all children, and eventually invents toys as a principal means. Santa later appears in The Road to Oz as an honored guest at Ozma’s birthday party, stated to be famous and beloved enough for everyone to bow even before he is announced as “The most Mighty and Loyal Friend of Children, His Supreme Highness – Santa Claus”.
Images of Santa Claus were further popularized through Haddon Sundblom‘s depiction of him for The Coca-Cola Company‘s Christmas advertising in the 1930s. The popularity of the image spawned urban legends that Santa Claus was invented by The Coca-Cola Company or that Santa wears red and white because they are the colors used to promote the Coca-Cola brand. Historically, Coca-Cola was not the first soft drink company to utilize the modern image of Santa Claus in its advertising—White Rock Beverages had already used a red and white Santa to sell mineral water in 1915 and then in advertisements for its ginger ale in 1923. Earlier still, Santa Claus had appeared dressed in red and white and essentially in his current form on several covers of Puck magazine in the first few years of the 20th century.
The image of Santa Claus as a benevolent character became reinforced with its association with charity and philanthropy, particularly by organizations such as the Salvation Army. Volunteers dressed as Santa Claus typically became part of fundraising drives to aid needy families at Christmas time.
In some images from the early 20th century, Santa was depicted as personally making his toys by hand in a small workshop like a craftsman. Eventually, the idea emerged that he had numerous elves responsible for making the toys, but the toys were still handmade by each individual elf working in the traditional manner.
The 1956 popular song by George Melachrino, “Mrs. Santa Claus”, and the 1963 children’s book How Mrs. Santa Claus Saved Christmas, by Phyllis McGinley, helped standardize and establish the character and role of Mrs. Claus in the popular imagination.
Seabury Quinn‘s 1948 novel Roads draws from historical legends to tell the story of Santa and the origins of Christmas. Other modern additions to the “story” of Santa include Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer, the 9th and lead reindeer created in 1939 by Robert L. May, a Montgomery Ward copywriter, and immortalized in a 1949 song by Gene Autry.
In popular culture
By the end of the 20th century, the reality of mass mechanized production became more fully accepted by the Western public. Elves had been portrayed as using assembly lines to produce toys early in the 20th century. That shift was reflected in the modern depiction of Santa’s residence—now often humorously portrayed as a fully mechanized production and distribution facility, equipped with the latest manufacturing technology, and overseen by the elves with Santa and Mrs. Claus as executives or managers. An excerpt from a 2004 article, from a supply chain managers’ trade magazine, aptly illustrates this depiction:
Santa’s main distribution center is a sight to behold. At 4,000,000 square feet (370,000 m2), it’s one of the world’s largest facilities. A real-time warehouse management system (WMS) is of course required to run such a complex. The facility makes extensive use of task interleaving, literally combining dozens of DC activities (putaway, replenishing, order picking, sleigh loading, cycle counting) in a dynamic queue … the DC elves have been on engineered standards and incentives for three years, leading to a 12% gain in productivity … The WMS and transportation system are fully integrated, allowing (the elves) to make optimal decisions that balance transportation and order picking and other DC costs. Unbeknownst to many, Santa actually has to use many sleighs and fake Santa drivers to get the job done Christmas Eve, and the transportation management system (TMS) optimally builds thousands of consolidated sacks that maximize cube utilization and minimize total air miles.
In 1912 the actor Leedham Bantock became the first actor to be identified as having played Santa Claus in a film. Santa Claus, which he also directed, included scenes photographed in a limited, two-tone color process and featured the use of detailed models. Since then many feature films have featured Santa Claus as a protagonist, including Miracle on 34th Street, The Santa Clause and Elf.
Santa has been described as a positive male cultural icon:
Santa is really the only cultural icon we have who’s male, does not carry a gun, and is all about peace, joy, giving, and caring for other people. That’s part of the magic for me, especially in a culture where we’ve become so commercialized and hooked into manufactured icons. Santa is much more organic, integral, connected to the past, and therefore connected to the future.
Many television commercials, comic strips and other media depict this as a sort of humorous business, with Santa’s elves acting as a sometimes mischievously disgruntled workforce, cracking jokes and pulling pranks on their boss. For instance, a Bloom County story from 15 December 1981 through 24 December 1981 has Santa rejecting the demands of PETCO (Professional Elves Toy-Making and Craft Organization) for higher wages, a hot tub in the locker room, and “short broads,” with the elves then going on strike. President Reagan steps in, fires all of Santa’s helpers, and replaces them with out-of-work air traffic controllers (an obvious reference to the 1981 air traffic controllers’ strike), resulting in a riot before Santa vindictively rehires them in humiliating new positions such as his reindeer. In The Sopranos episode, “…To Save Us All from Satan’s Power“, Paulie Gualtieri says he “Used to think Santa and Mrs. Claus were running a sweatshop over there … The original elves were ugly, traveled with Santa to throw bad kids a beatin’, and gave the good ones toys.”
In Kyrgyzstan, a mountain peak was named after Santa Claus, after a Swedish company had suggested the location be a more efficient starting place for present-delivering journeys all over the world, than Lapland. In the Kyrgyz capital, Bishkek, a Santa Claus Festival was held on 30 December 2007, with government officials attending. 2008 was officially declared the Year of Santa Claus in the country. The events are seen as moves to boost tourism in Kyrgyzstan.
The Guinness World Record for the largest gathering of Santa Clauses is held by Thrissur, Kerala, India where on 27 December 2014, 18,112 Santas came overtaking the current record of Derry City, Northern Ireland. On 9 September 2007 where a total of 12,965 people dressed up as Santa or Santa’s helper which previously brought down the record of 3,921, which was set during the Santa Dash event in Liverpool City Centre in 2005. A gathering of Santas in 2009 in Bucharest, Romania attempted to top the world record, but failed with only 3,939 Santas.
Traditions and rituals
The tradition of Santa Claus entering dwellings through the chimney is shared by many European seasonal gift-givers. In pre-Christian Norse tradition, Odin would often enter through chimneys and fire holes on the solstice. In the Italian Befana tradition, the gift-giving witch is perpetually covered with soot from her trips down the chimneys of children’s homes. In the tale of Saint Nicholas, the saint tossed coins through a window, and, in a later version of the tale, down a chimney when he finds the window locked. In Dutch artist Jan Steen‘s painting, The Feast of Saint Nicholas, adults and toddlers are glancing up a chimney with amazement on their faces while other children play with their toys. The hearth was held sacred in primitive belief as a source of beneficence, and popular belief had elves and fairies bringing gifts to the house through this portal. Santa’s entrance into homes on Christmas Eve via the chimney was made part of American tradition through the poem “A Visit from St. Nicholas” where the author described him as an elf.
Christmas Eve rituals
In the United States and Canada, children traditionally leave Santa a glass of milk and a plate of cookies; in Britain and Australia, he is sometimes given sherry or beer, and mince pies instead. In Denmark, Norway and Sweden, it is common for children to leave him rice porridge with cinnamon sugar instead. In Ireland it is popular to give him Guinness or milk, along with Christmas pudding or mince pies.
In Hungary, St. Nicolaus (Mikulás) comes on the night of 5 December and the children get their gifts the next morning. They get sweets in a bag if they were good, and a golden colored birch switch if not. On Christmas Eve “Little Jesus” comes and gives gifts for everyone.
In Slovenia, Saint Nicholas (Miklavž) also brings small gifts for good children on the eve of 6 December. Božiček (Christmas Man) brings gifts on the eve of 25 December, and Dedek Mraz (Grandfather Frost) brings gifts in the evening of 31 December to be opened on New Years Day.
New Zealand, British, Australian, Irish, Canadian, and American children also leave a carrot for Santa’s reindeer, and are told that if they are not good all year round that they will receive a lump of coal in their stockings, although the actual practice of giving coal is now considered archaic. Children following the Dutch custom for sinterklaas will “put out their shoe” (leave hay and a carrot for his horse in a shoe before going to bed, sometimes weeks before the sinterklaas avond). The next morning they will find the hay and carrot replaced by a gift; often, this is a marzipan figurine. Naughty children were once told that they would be left a roe (a bundle of sticks) instead of sweets, but this practice has been discontinued.
Other Christmas Eve Santa Claus rituals in the United States include reading A Visit from St. Nicholas or other tale about Santa Claus, watching a Santa or Christmas-related animated program on television (such as the aforementioned Santa Claus Is Comin’ to Town and similar specials, such as Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer, among many others), and the singing of Santa Claus songs such as “Santa Claus Is Coming to Town“, “Here Comes Santa Claus“, and “Up on the House Top“. Last minute rituals for children before going to bed include aligning stockings at the mantelpiece or other place where Santa cannot fail to see them, peeking up the chimney (in homes with a fireplace), glancing out a window and scanning the heavens for Santa’s sleigh, and (in homes without a fireplace) unlocking an exterior door so Santa can easily enter the house. Tags on gifts for children are sometimes signed by their parents “From Santa Claus” before the gifts are laid beneath the tree.
Ho, ho, ho
Ho ho ho is the way that many languages write out how Santa Claus laughs. “Ho, ho, ho! Merry Christmas!” It is the textual rendition of a particular type of deep-throated laugh or chuckle, most associated today with Santa Claus and Father Christmas.
The laughter of Santa Claus has long been an important attribute by which the character is identified, but it also does not appear in many non-English-speaking countries. The traditional Christmas poem A Visit from St. Nicholas relates that Santa has:
- … a little round belly
That shook when he laugh’d, like a bowl full of jelly
Santa Claus’s home traditionally includes a residence and a workshop where he creates—often with the aid of elves or other supernatural beings—the gifts he delivers to good children at Christmas. Some stories and legends include a village, inhabited by his helpers, surrounding his home and shop.
In North American tradition (in the United States and Canada), Santa lives on the North Pole, which according to Canada Post lies within Canadian jurisdiction in postal code H0H 0H0 (a reference to “ho ho ho”, Santa’s notable saying, although postal codes starting with H are usually reserved for the island of Montreal in Québec). On 23 December 2008, Jason Kenney, Canada’s minister of Citizenship, Immigration and Multiculturalism, formally awarded Canadian citizenship status to Santa Claus. “The Government of Canada wishes Santa the very best in his Christmas Eve duties and wants to let him know that, as a Canadian citizen, he has the automatic right to re-enter Canada once his trip around the world is complete,” Kenney said in an official statement.
There is also a city named North Pole in Alaska where a tourist attraction known as the “Santa Claus House” has been established. The United States Postal Service uses the city’s ZIP code of 99705 as their advertised postal code for Santa Claus. A Wendy’s in North Pole, AK has also claimed to have a “sleigh fly through”.
Each Nordic country claims Santa’s residence to be within their territory. Norway claims he lives in Drøbak. In Denmark, he is said to live in Greenland (near Uummannaq). In Sweden, the town of Mora has a theme park named Tomteland. The national postal terminal in Tomteboda in Stockholm receives children’s letters for Santa. In Finland, Korvatunturi has long been known as Santa’s home, and two theme parks, Santa Claus Village and Santa Park are located near Rovaniemi. In Belarus there is a home of Ded Moroz in Belovezhskaya Pushcha National Park.
Parades, department stores, and shopping malls
The examples and perspective in this section deal primarily with North America and do not represent a worldwide view of the subject. (December 2016) (Learn how and when to remove this template message)
Santa Claus appears in the weeks before Christmas in department stores or shopping malls, or at parties. The practice of this has been credited[dubious ] to James Edgar, as he started doing this in 1890 in his Brockton, Massachusetts department store. He is played by an actor, usually helped by other actors (often mall employees) dressed as elves or other creatures of folklore associated with Santa. Santa’s function is either to promote the store’s image by distributing small gifts to children, or to provide a seasonal experience to children by listening to their wishlist while having them sit on his knee (a practice now under review by some organisations in Britain, and Switzerland). Sometimes a photograph of the child and Santa are taken. Having a Santa set up to take pictures with children is a ritual that dates back at least to 1918.
The area set up for this purpose is festively decorated, usually with a large throne, and is called variously “Santa’s Grotto”, “Santa’s Workshop” or a similar term. In the United States, the most notable of these is the Santa at the flagship Macy’s store in New York City—he arrives at the store by sleigh in the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade on the last float, and his court takes over a large portion of one floor in the store. The Macy’s Santa Claus in New York City is often said to be the real Santa. This was popularized by the 1947 film Miracle on 34th Street with Santa Claus being called Kris Kringle. Essayist David Sedaris is known for the satirical SantaLand Diaries he kept while working as an elf in the Macy’s display, which were turned into a famous radio segment and later published.
In Canada, malls operated by Oxford Properties established a process by which autistic children could visit Santa Claus at the mall without having to contend with crowds. The malls open early to allow entry only to families with autistic children, who have a private visit with Santa Claus. In 2012, the Southcentre Mall in Calgary was the first mall to offer this service.
There are schools offering instruction on how to act as Santa Claus. For example, children’s television producer Jonathan Meath studied at the International School of Santa Claus and earned the degree Master of Santa Claus in 2006. It blossomed into a second career for him, and after appearing in parades and malls, he appeared on the cover of the American monthly Boston Magazine as Santa. There are associations with members who portray Santa; for example, Mr. Meath was a board member of the international organization called Fraternal Order of Real Bearded Santas.
Letter writing to Santa
Writing letters to Santa Claus has been a Christmas tradition for children for many years. These letters normally contain a wishlist of toys and assertions of good behavior. Some social scientists have found that boys and girls write different types of letters. Girls generally write longer but more polite lists and express the nature of Christmas more in their letters than in letters written by boys. Girls also more often request gifts for other people.
Many postal services allow children to send letters to Santa Claus. These letters may be answered by postal workers or outside volunteers. Writing letters to Santa Claus has the educational benefits of promoting literacy, computer literacy, and e-mail literacy. A letter to Santa is often a child’s first experience of correspondence. Written and sent with the help of a parent or teacher, children learn about the structure of a letter, salutations, and the use of an address and postcode.
According to the Universal Postal Union (UPU)’s 2007 study and survey of national postal operations, the United States Postal Service (USPS) has the oldest Santa letter answering effort by a national postal system. The USPS Santa letter answering effort started in 1912 out of the historic James Farley Post Office in New York, and since 1940 has been called “Operation Santa” to ensure that letters to Santa are adopted by charitable organizations, major corporations, local businesses and individuals in order to make children’s holiday dreams come true from coast to coast. Those seeking a North Pole holiday postmark through the USPS, are told to send their letter from Santa or a holiday greeting card by 10 December to: North Pole Holiday Postmark, Postmaster, 4141 Postmark Dr, Anchorage, AK 99530-9998.
In 2006, according to the UPU’s 2007 study and survey of national postal operations, France’s Postal Service received the most letters for Santa Claus or “Père Noël” with 1,220,000 letters received from 126 countries. France’s Postal Service in 2007 specially recruited someone to answer the enormous volume of mail that was coming from Russia for Santa Claus.
- Countries whose national postal operators answer letters to Santa and other end-of-year holiday figures, and the number of letters received in 2006: Germany (500,000), Australia (117,000), Austria (6,000), Bulgaria (500), Canada (1,060,000), Spain (232,000), United States (no figure, as statistics are not kept centrally), Finland (750,000), France (1,220,000), Ireland (100,000), New Zealand (110,000), Portugal (255,000), Poland (3,000), Slovakia (85,000), Sweden (150,000), Switzerland (17,863), Ukraine (5,019), United Kingdom (750,000).
- In 2006, Finland’s national postal operation received letters from 150 countries (representing 90% of the letters received), France’s Postal Service from 126 countries, Germany from 80 countries, and Slovakia from 20 countries.
- In 2007, Canada Post replied to letters in 26 languages and Deutsche Post in 16 languages.
- Some national postal operators make it possible to send in e-mail messages which are answered by physical mail. All the same, Santa still receives far more letters than e-mail through the national postal operators, proving that children still write letters. National postal operators offering the ability to use an on-line web form (with or without a return e-mail address) to Santa and obtain a reply include Canada Post (on-line web request form in English and French), France’s Postal Service (on-line web request form in French), and New Zealand Post (on-line web request form in English). In France, by 6 December 2010, a team of 60 postal elves had sent out reply cards in response to 80,000 e-mail on-line request forms and more than 500,000 physical letters.
Canada Post has a special postal code for letters to Santa Claus, and since 1982 over 13,000 Canadian postal workers have volunteered to write responses. His address is: Santa Claus, North Pole, Canada, H0H 0H0; no postage is required. (see also: Ho ho ho). (This postal code, in which zeroes are used for the letter “O”, is consistent with the alternating letter-number format of all Canadian postal codes.) Sometimes children’s charities answer letters in poor communities, or from children’s hospitals, and give them presents they would not otherwise receive. From 2002 to 2014, the program replied to approximately “one million letters or more a year, and in total answered more than 24.7 million letters”; as of 2015, it responds to more than 1.5 million letters per year, “in over 30 languages, including Braille … answer[ing] them all in the language they are written”.
In Britain it was traditional for some to burn the Christmas letters on the fire so that they would be magically transported by the wind to the North Pole. However this has been found to be less efficient than the use of the normal postal service, and this tradition is dying out in modern times, especially with few homes having open fires. According to the Royal Mail website, Santa’s address for letters from British children is: Santa/Father Christmas, Santa’s Grotto, Reindeerland, XM4 5HQ 
In Mexico and other Latin American countries, besides using the mail, sometimes children wrap their letters to a small helium balloon, releasing them into the air so Santa magically receives them.
In 2010, the Brazilian National Post Service, “Correios” formed partnerships with public schools and social institutions to encourage children to write letters and make use of postcodes and stamps. In 2009, the Brazilian National Post Service, “Correios” answered almost two million children’s letters, and spread some seasonal cheer by donating 414,000 Christmas gifts to some of Brazil’s neediest citizens.
Through the years, the Finnish Santa Claus (Joulupukki or “Yule Goat“) has received over eight million letters. He receives over 600,000 letters every year from over 198 different countries with Togo being the most recent country added to the list. Children from Great Britain, Poland and Japan are the busiest writers. The Finnish Santa Claus lives in Korvatunturi, however the Santa Claus Main Post Office is situated in Rovaniemi precisely at the Arctic circle. His address is: Santa Claus’ Main Post Office, Santa Claus Village, FIN-96930 Arctic Circle. The post office welcomes 300,000 visitors a year, with 70,000 visitors in December alone.
Children can also receive a letter from Santa through a variety of private agencies and organizations, and on occasion public and private cooperative ventures. An example of a public and private cooperative venture is the opportunity for expatriate and local children and parents to receive postmarked mail and greeting cards from Santa during December in the Finnish Embassy in Beijing, People’s Republic of China, Santa Claus Village in Rovaniemi, Finland, and the People’s Republic of China Postal System’s Beijing International Post Office. Parents can order a personalized “Santa letter” to be sent to their child, often with a North Pole postmark. The “Santa Letter” market generally relies on the internet as a medium for ordering such letters rather than retail stores.[undue weight? ]
Tracking Santa Claus
A number of websites created by various organizations track Santa Claus each year. Some, such as NORAD Tracks Santa, the Airservices Australia Tracks Santa Project, the Santa Update Project, and the MSNBC and Bing Maps Platform Tracks Santa Project have endured. Others, such as the Dallas/Fort Worth International Airport‘s Tracks Santa Project and the NASA Tracks Santa Project, no longer actively track Santa.
The origins of the NORAD Tracks Santa programme began in the United States in 1955, when a Sears Roebuck store in Colorado Springs, Colorado, gave children a number to call a “Santa hotline“. The number was mistyped, resulting in children calling the Continental Air Defense Command (CONAD) on Christmas Eve instead. The Director of Operations, Colonel Harry Shoup, received the first call for Santa and responded by telling children that there were signs on the radar that Santa was indeed heading south from the North Pole. A tradition began which continued under the name NORAD Tracks Santa when in 1958 Canada and the United States jointly created the North American Air Defense Command (NORAD). This tracking can now be done via the Internet and NORAD’s website.
In the past, many local television stations in the United States and Canada likewise claimed they “tracked Santa Claus” in their own metropolitan areas through the stations’ meteorologists. In December 2000, the Weather Channel built upon these local efforts to provide a national Christmas Eve “Santa tracking” effort, called “SantaWatch” in cooperation with NASA, the International Space Station, and Silicon Valley-based new multimedia firm Dreamtime Holdings. In the 21st century, most local television stations in the United States and Canada rely upon outside established “Santa tracking” efforts, such as NORAD Tracks Santa.
Many other websites became available year-round, devoted to Santa Claus and purport to keep tabs on his activities in his workshop. Many of these websites also include email addresses which allow children to send email to Santa Claus. Some websites, such as Santa’s page on Microsoft’s Windows Live Spaces, however have used or still use “bots” to compose and send email replies, with occasional unfortunate results.
In addition to providing holiday-themed entertainment, “Santa tracking” websites raise interest in space technology and exploration, serve to educate children in geography. and encourage them to take an interest in science.
Calvinist and Puritan opposition
Santa Claus has partial Christian roots in Saint Nicholas, particularly in the high church denominations that practice the veneration of him, in addition to other saints. In light of this, the character has sometimes been the focus of controversy over the holiday and its meanings. Some Christians, particularly Calvinists and Puritans, disliked the idea of Santa Claus, as well as Christmas in general, believing that the lavish celebrations were not in accordance with their faith. Other nonconformist Christians condemn the materialist focus of contemporary gift giving and see Santa Claus as the symbol of that culture.
Condemnation of Christmas was prevalent among the 17th-century English Puritans and Dutch Calvinists who banned the holiday as either pagan or Roman Catholic. The American colonies established by these groups reflected this view. Tolerance for Christmas increased after the Restoration but the Puritan opposition to the holiday persisted in New England for almost two centuries. In the Dutch New Netherland colony, season celebrations focused on New Year’s Day.
Following the Restoration of the monarchy and with Puritans out of power in England, the ban on Christmas was satirized in works such as Josiah King’s The Examination and Tryal of Old Father Christmas; Together with his Clearing by the Jury (1686).
Reverend Paul Nedergaard, a clergyman in Copenhagen, Denmark, attracted controversy in 1958 when he declared Santa to be a “pagan goblin” (“en hedensk trold” in Danish) after Santa’s image was used on the annual Christmas stamp (“julemærke”) for a Danish children’s welfare organization. A number of denominations of Christians have varying concerns about Santa Claus, which range from acceptance to denouncement.
Mary Baker Eddy, the founder of the Christian Science movement, wrote: “the children should not be taught that Santa Claus has aught to do with this [Christmas] pastime. A deceit or falsehood is never wise. Too much cannot be done towards guarding and guiding well the germinating and inclining thought of childhood. To mould aright the first impressions of innocence, aids in perpetuating purity and in unfolding the immortal model, man in His image and likeness.”
Opposition under state atheism
Under the Marxist–Leninist doctrine of state atheism in the Soviet Union after its foundation in 1917, Christmas celebrations—along with other religious holidays—were prohibited as a result of the Soviet antireligious campaign. The League of Militant Atheists encouraged school pupils to campaign against Christmas traditions, among them being Santa Claus and the Christmas tree, as well as other Christian holidays including Easter; the League established an antireligious holiday to be the 31st of each month as a replacement.
The government of the People’s Republic of China officially espouses state atheism, and has conducted antireligious campaigns to this end. In December 2018, officials raided Christian churches just prior to Christmastide and coerced them to close; Christmas trees and Santa Clauses were also forcibly removed.
Symbol of commercialism
In his book Nicholas: The Epic Journey from Saint to Santa Claus, writer Jeremy Seal describes how the commercialization of the Santa Claus figure began in the 19th century. “In the 1820s he began to acquire the recognizable trappings: reindeer, sleigh, bells,” said Seal in an interview. “They are simply the actual bearings in the world from which he emerged. At that time, sleighs were how you got about Manhattan.”
Writing in Mothering, writer Carol Jean-Swanson makes similar points, noting that the original figure of St. Nicholas gave only to those who were needy and that today Santa Claus seems to be more about conspicuous consumption:
Our jolly old Saint Nicholas reflects our culture to a T, for he is fanciful, exuberant, bountiful, over-weight, and highly commercial. He also mirrors some of our highest ideals: childhood purity and innocence, selfless giving, unfaltering love, justice, and mercy. (What child has ever received a coal for Christmas?) The problem is that, in the process, he has become burdened with some of society’s greatest challenges: materialism, corporate greed, and domination by the media. Here, Santa carries more in his baggage than toys alone!
In the Czech Republic, a group of advertising professionals started a website against Santa Claus, a relatively recent phenomenon in that country. “Czech Christmases are intimate and magical. All that Santa stuff seems to me like cheap show business,” said David König of the Creative Copywriters Club, pointing out that it is primarily an American and British tradition. “I’m not against Santa himself. I’m against Santa in my country only.” In the Czech tradition, presents are delivered by Ježíšek, which translates as Baby Jesus.
In the United Kingdom, Father Christmas was historically depicted wearing a green cloak. As Father Christmas has been increasingly merged into the image of Santa Claus, that has been changed to the more commonly known red suit. However, Santa had been portrayed in a red suit in the 19th century by Thomas Nast among others.
A law in the U.S. state of Ohio prohibits the usage of Santa Claus or his image to sell alcoholic beverages. The law came to attention when the beer brand Bud Light attempted to use its mascot Spuds MacKenzie in a Santa Claus outfit during a December 1987 ad campaign; Bud Light was forced to stop using the imagery.
Controversy about deceiving children
Psychologists generally differentiate between telling fictional stories that feature Santa Claus and actively deceiving a child into believing that Santa Claus is real. Imaginative play, in which children know that Santa Claus is only a character in a story but pretend that he is real, just like they pretend that superheroes or other fictional characters are real, is widely believed to be valuable. However, actively deceiving a child into believing in Santa Claus’s real-world existence, sometimes even to the extent of fabricating false evidence to convince them despite their growing natural doubts, does not result in imaginative play and can promote credulity in the face of strong evidence against Santa Claus’s existence.
Various psychologists and researchers have wrestled with the ways that young children are convinced of the existence of Santa Claus, and have wondered whether children’s abilities to critically weigh real-world evidence may be undermined by their belief in this or other imaginary figures. For example, University of Texas psychology professor Jacqueline Woolley helped conduct a study that found, to the contrary, that children seemed competent in their use of logic, evidence, and comparative reasoning even though they might conclude that Santa Claus or other fanciful creatures were real:
The adults they count on to provide reliable information about the world introduce them to Santa. Then his existence is affirmed by friends, books, TV and movies. It is also validated by hard evidence: the half-eaten cookies and empty milk glasses by the tree on Christmas morning. In other words, children do a great job of scientifically evaluating Santa. And adults do a great job of duping them.— Jacqueline Wooley
Woolley posited that it is perhaps “kinship with the adult world” that causes children not to be angry that they were lied to for so long. However, the criticism about this deception is not that it is a simple lie, but a complicated series of very large lies.
Typical objections to presenting Santa Claus as a literally real person, rather than a story, include:
- that lying is normally bad,
- that parents intentionally lying to their children promotes distrust,
- that it promotes selfishness, greed, and materialism,
- that it associates good behavior with being materially rewarded with presents from Santa Claus, and
- that tricking children into believing falsehoods interferes with the development of critical thinking.
With no greater good at the heart of this lie than having some fun, some have charged that the deception is more about the parents, their short-term happiness in seeing children excited about Santa Claus, and their nostalgic unwillingness to prolong the age of magical thinking, than it is about the children.
Others, however, see little harm in the belief in Santa Claus. Psychologist Tamar Murachver said that because it is a cultural, not parental, lie, it does not usually undermine parental trust. The New Zealand Skeptics also see no harm in parents telling their children that Santa is real. Spokesperson Vicki Hyde said, “It would be a hard-hearted parent indeed who frowned upon the innocent joys of our children’s cultural heritage. We save our bah humbugs for the things that exploit the vulnerable.”
Most of them do not remain angry or embarrassed about the deception for very long. John Condry of Cornell University interviewed more than 500 children for a study of the issue and found that not a single child was angry at his or her parents for telling them Santa Claus was real. According to Dr. Condry, “The most common response to finding out the truth was that they felt older and more mature. They now knew something that the younger kids did not”. In other studies, a small fraction of children felt betrayed by their parents, but disappointment was a more common response. Some children have reacted poorly, including rejecting the family’s religious beliefs on the grounds that if the parents lied about the unprovable existence of Santa Claus, then they might lie about the unprovable existence of God as well. By contrast Kyle Johnson of King’s College wrote, “It’s a lie, it degrades your parental trustworthiness, it encourages credulity, it does not encourage imagination, and it’s equivalent to bribing your kids for good behavior.”
- Amu Nowruz
- Belsnickel — a German gift-giver and punisher of naughty children, a.k.a. Kriskringle
- Companions of Saint Nicholas
- Ded Moroz — (Father Frost, Russian: Дед Мороз) plays a role similar to Santa Claus
- Joulupukki — original Santa-Claus from Finland
- Krampus — in German-speaking Alpine folklore, a horned figure who, during the Christmas season, punishes children who have misbehaved
- Mikulás — Hungary, Poland, Romania Slovenia, Czech Republic, Slovakia, a figure who brings treats before Christmas
- Moș Gerilă — name of a character from Romanian communist propaganda
- Olentzero — Basque character, possibly derived from Roman traditions
- Saint Nicholas of Myra
- Saint Basil —who is believed to bring Christmas gifts for children in Greek Orthodox tradition
- Sinterklaas — Dutch mythical figure
- Tomte — Scandinavian mythical character
- Yule Goat — Scandinavian Christmas symbol
- Yule Lads — a group of Icelandic figures who may leave gifts or rotting potatoes in the days before Christmas
- Jack Frost and Old Man Winter — Mythical characters associated with winter
- Christmas controversy
- Easter Bunny
- Flying Santa—a northeastern US tradition of pilots delivering presents to families in remote lighthouses
- Fraternal Order of Real Bearded Santas
- Pancho Claus, a Tex-Mex version of Santa Claus
- Santa Claus, Indiana—a small Midwestern United States town named after the figure, and home to Holiday World amusement park
- Santa Claus’s reindeer
- Tooth fairy
- Yes, Virginia, there is a Santa Claus
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… Santa is really the only cultural icon we have who’s male, does not carry a gun, and is all about peace …
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DEDHAM—The fifth annual Dedham Square Holiday Stroll this … At 6 p.m., Jonathan Meath – better known as Santa JG, who performs with the Boston Pops – will entertain children and families at Cafe Video Paradiso with a sing-along with Santa. “We booked him months ago because we knew that he’s in demand this time of year,” Haelsen says.
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Santa Claus is coming to town. More accurately, he’s from town—Cambridge that is. Jonathan Meath is the perfect fit for a Santa.
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Hello fellow Santas, Once again we had an informative and fun gathering. Ten Santas were in attendance and we were happy to welcome Karilyn Curran, the chair person of our up and coming Santa Luncheon for 2011. … Fashion Show: … Jonathan Meath …
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A chapter on representations of Christmas in Soviet cinema could, in fact be the shortest in this collection: suffice it to say that there were, at least officially, no Christmas celebrations in the atheist socialist state after its foundation in 1917.
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- Luzer, Daniel (26 November 2013). “What a Real War on Christmas Looks Like”. Pacific Standard. Retrieved 12 November 2014.
There were several anti-religious campaigns, the most dramatic of which occurred in the 1920s. According to a piece published by the School of Russian and Asia Studies: In 1925, Christmas was effectively banned under the officially atheist Soviets, and was not to return to Russian lands until 1992. The New Year celebration usurped the traditions of a Christmas Tree (Ёлка), Santa (known in Russian as “Дед Mopoз” or “Grandfather Frost”), and presents. In the Russian tradition, Grandfather Frost’s granddaughter, the Snow Maiden (Снегурочка), always accompanies him to help distribute the gifts. Elves are not associated with the holiday. The state prohibited people from selling Christmas trees. There were even festivals, organized by the League of Militant Atheists, specifically to denigrate religious holidays. Their carnivals were inspired by similar events staged by activists after the French Revolution. From 1923 to 1924 and then again from 1929 to 1930 the “Komsomol Christmases” and Easters were basically holiday celebrations of atheism.
- Ramet, Sabrina Petra (10 November 2005). Religious Policy in the Soviet Union. Cambridge University Press. p. 138. ISBN 9780521022309.
The League sallied forth to save the day from this putative religious revival. Antireligioznik obliged with so many articles that it devoted an entire section of its annual index for 1928 to anti-religious training in the schools. More such material followed in 1929, and a flood of it the next year. It recommended what Lenin and others earlier had explicitly condemned—carnivals, farces, and games to intimidate and purge the youth of religious belief. It suggested that pupils campaign against customs associated with Christmas (including Christmas trees) and Easter. Some schools, the League approvingly reported, staged an anti-religious day on the 31st of each month. Not teachers but the League’s local set the programme for this special occasion.
- Dillon, Michael (2001). Religious Minorities and China. Minority Rights Group International.
- Buang, Sa’eda; Chew, Phyllis Ghim-Lian (9 May 2014). Muslim Education in the 21st Century: Asian Perspectives. Routledge. p. 75. ISBN 9781317815006.
Subsequently, a new China was found on the basis of Communist ideology, i.e. atheism. Within the framework of this ideology, religion was treated as a ‘contorted’ world-view and people believed that religion would necessarily disappear at the end, along with the development of human society. A series of anti-religious campaigns was implemented by the Chinese Communist Party from the early 1950s to the late 1970s. As a result, in nearly 30 years between the beginning of the 1950s and the end of the 1970s, mosques (as well as churches and Chinese temples) were shut down and Imams involved in forced ‘re-education’.
- Holl, Daniel (20 December 2018). “Chinese City Cuts Down Christmas”. The Epoch Times.
City law enforcement officials were ordered to “crack down on street-side Christmas trees, Santa Clauses and anything related to Christmas,” said the memo. “Completely control the use of park-squares and other public spaces against promoting religious propaganda activities.” Communism, being officially atheist, has long been at odds with anything related to faith or religion, and Christmas has long since been a target. Other far-left political groups, including the Communist Party of the Soviet Union (CPSU), and even the Nazi Party, suppressed Christmas related activities.
- “Alarm over China’s Church crackdown”. BBC. 18 December 2018.
Among those arrested are a prominent pastor and his wife, of the Early Rain Covenant Church in Sichuan. Both have been charged with state subversion. And on Saturday morning, dozens of police raided a children’s Bible class at Rongguili Church in Guangzhou. One Christian in Chengdu told the BBC: “I’m lucky they haven’t found me yet.” China is officially atheist, though says it allows religious freedom.
- “Santa Claus won’t be coming to this town, as Chinese officials ban Christmas”. South China Morning Post. 18 December 2018.
Christmas is not a recognised holiday in mainland China – where the ruling party is officially atheist – and for many years authorities have taken a tough stance on anyone who celebrates it in public. … The statement by Langfang officials said that anyone caught selling Christmas trees, wreaths, stockings or Santa Claus figures in the city would be punished. … While the ban on the sale of Christmas goods might appear to be directed at retailers, it also comes amid a crackdown on Christians practising their religion across the country. On Saturday morning, more than 60 police officers and officials stormed a children’s Bible class in Guangzhou, capital of southern China’s Guangdong province. The incident came after authorities shut down the 1,500-member Zion Church in Beijing in September and Chengdu’s 500-member Early Rain Covenant Church last week. In the case of the latter, about 100 worshippers were snatched from their homes or from the streets in coordinated raids.
- How St. Nicholas Became Santa Claus: One Theory, interview with Jeremy Seal at the St. Nicholas Center.
- “In defense of Santa Claus”. Archived from the original on 26 December 2007. Retrieved 7 September 2016., Carol-Jean Swanson, Mothering, Fall 1992.
- “Better Watch Out, Better Not Cry”. Archived from the original on 20 January 2007. Retrieved 13 December 2007., Hilda Hoy, The Prague Post, 13 December 2006.
- Santa goes green!; BBC.co.uk; 26 November 2007; Retrieved 22 December 2007
- “Nast, Thomas: “Merry Old Santa Claus” – Encyclopædia Britannica”. Britannica.com. Retrieved 11 June 2013.
- “Spuds Can’t Promote Beer Dressed as Santa”. Associated Press. 2 December 1987. Retrieved 23 November 2012.
- Johnson, David Kyle. “Say Goodbye to the Santa Claus Lie”. Psychology Today. Retrieved 12 December 2018.
- Lowe, Scott C., ed. (2010). Christmas – Philosophy for Everyone: Better than a Lump of Coal. Malden, Mass.: Wiley-Blackwell. pp. 143–147. ISBN 9781444330908. OCLC 539086689.
- Do You Believe in Surnits?, Jaqueline Woolley, The New York Times, December 23, 2006.
- Santa Claus: Should Parents Perpetuate the Santa Claus Myth?, Austin Cline, About.com
- Vines, Gail (2011). “The Santa Delusion”. New Scientist. 210 (2809): 29. Bibcode:2011NewSc.210Q..29M. doi:10.1016/S0262-4079(11)60920-2. Retrieved 12 December 2018.
- “How to deal with the ‘is Santa real?‘“. The Dominion Post. Retrieved 7 November 2011.
- Lawrence Kutner;Parent & Child; New York Times; 21 November 1991; Retrieved 22 December 2007
- “Lying To Kids About Santa Can Erode Their Trust, Psychologists Say”. Vocativ. 25 November 2016.
- Belk, Russell. 1989. “Materialism with the modern U.S. Christmas“. In Interpretive Consumer Research, ed. by Elizabeth C. Hirschman, Provo, UT: Association for Consumer Research, 75–104.
- Bowler, Gerry, Editor (2004). The World Encyclopedia of Christmas, Toronto: McClelland & Stewart Limited. ISBN 978-0-7710-1535-9 (0-7710-1535-6)
- Bowler, Gerry, (2007). Santa Claus: A Biography, Toronto: McClelland & Stewart Limited. ISBN 978-0-7710-1668-4 (0-7710-1668-9)
- Crump, William D. Editor (2006). The Christmas Encyclopedia, 2nd edition, Jefferson, North Carolina: McFarland & Company, Inc., Publishers, ISBN 978-0-7864-2293-7
- Nissenbaum, Stephen (1997). The Battle for Christmas, New York: Alfred A. Knopf, ISBN 978-0-679-74038-4 (0-679-74038-4)
- Joffe-Walt, Chana (19 December 2012). “Without Magic, Santa Would Need 12 Million Employees”. All Things Considered. NPR. Retrieved 20 December 2012.
|Defender of Orthodoxy, Wonderworker, Holy Hierarch, Bishop of Myra|
|Born||Traditionally 15 March 270
Patara, Roman Empire
|Died||Traditionally 6 December 343 (aged 73)
Myra, Byzantine Empire
|Venerated in||All Christian denominations which venerate saints|
|Major shrine||Basilica di San Nicola, Bari, Italy|
|Feast||5/6 December in Western Christianity; 19 December in Eastern Christianity (main feast day – Saint Nicholas Day)
22 May [O.S. 9 May] (translation of relics)
|Attributes||Vested as a Bishop. In Eastern Christianity, wearing an omophorion and holding a Gospel Book. Sometimes shown with Jesus Christ over one shoulder, holding a Gospel Book, and with the Theotokos over the other shoulder, holding an omophorion|
|Patronage||Children, coopers, sailors, fishermen, merchants, broadcasters, the falsely accused, repentant thieves, brewers, pharmacists, archers, pawnbrokers, Aberdeen, Galway, Russia, Greece, Hellenic Navy, Liverpool, Bari, Siggiewi, Moscow, Amsterdam, Lorraine, Royal School of Church Music and Duchy of Lorraine, students in various cities and countries around Europe|
Saint Nicholas of Myra[a] (traditionally 15 March 270 – 6 December 343),[b] also known as Nicholas of Bari, was an early Christian bishop of the ancient Greek maritime city of Myra in Asia Minor (Ancient Greek: Μύρα, modern-day Demre, Turkey) during the time of the Roman Empire. Because of the many miracles attributed to his intercession, he is also known as Nicholas the Wonderworker.[c] Saint Nicholas is the patron saint of sailors, merchants, archers, repentant thieves, prostitutes, children, brewers, pawnbrokers, and students in various cities and countries around Europe. His reputation evolved among the faithful, as was common for early Christian saints, and his legendary habit of secret gift-giving gave rise to the traditional model of Santa Claus (“Saint Nick”) through Sinterklaas.
Very little is known about the historical Saint Nicholas. The earliest accounts of his life were written centuries after his death and contain many legendary elaborations. He is said to have been born in the Greek seaport of Patara, Lycia in Asia Minor to wealthy Christian parents. In one of the earliest attested and most famous incidents from his life, he is said to have rescued three girls from being forced into prostitution by dropping a sack of gold coins through the window of their house each night for three nights so their father could pay a dowry for each of them. Other early stories tell of him calming a storm at sea, saving three innocent soldiers from wrongful execution, and chopping down a tree possessed by a demon. In his youth, he is said to have made a pilgrimage to Egypt and the Palestine area. Shortly after his return, he became Bishop of Myra. He was later cast into prison during the persecution of Diocletian, but was released after the accession of Constantine. An early list makes him an attendee at the First Council of Nicaea in 325, but he is never mentioned in any writings by people who were actually at the council. Late, unsubstantiated legends claim that he was temporarily defrocked and imprisoned during the Council for slapping the heretic Arius. Another famous late legend tells how he resurrected three children, who had been murdered and pickled in brine by a butcher planning to sell them as pork during a famine.
Fewer than 200 years after Nicholas’s death, the St. Nicholas Church was built in Myra under the orders of Theodosius II over the site of the church, where he had served as bishop and Nicholas’s remains were moved to a sarcophagus in that church. In 1087, while the Greek Christian inhabitants of the region were subjugated by the newly arrived Muslim Seljuk Turks, and soon after their church was declared to be in schism by the Catholic church, a group of merchants from the Italian city of Bari removed the major bones of Nicholas’s skeleton from his sarcophagus in the church without authorization and brought them to their hometown, where they are now enshrined in the Basilica di San Nicola. The remaining bone fragments from the sarcophagus were later removed by Venetian sailors and taken to Venice during the First Crusade. His relics in Bari are said to exude a miraculous watery substance known as “manna” or “myrrh“[attribution needed], which some members of the faithful regard as possessing supernatural powers.
Very little at all is known about Saint Nicholas’s historical life. Any writings Nicholas himself may have produced have been lost and he is not mentioned by any contemporary chroniclers. This is not surprising, since Nicholas lived during a turbulent time in Roman history. Furthermore, all written records were kept on papyrus or parchment, which were less durable than modern paper, and texts needed to be periodically recopied by hand onto new material in order to be preserved. The earliest mentions of Saint Nicholas indicate that, by the sixth century, his cult was already well-established. Less than two hundred years after Saint Nicholas’s probable death, the Eastern Emperor Theodosius II (ruled 401–450) ordered the building of the Church of Saint Nicholas in Myra, which thereby preserves an early mention of his name. The Byzantine historian Procopius also mentions that the Emperor Justinian I (ruled 527–565) renovated churches in Constantinople dedicated to Saint Nicholas and Saint Priscus, which may have originally been built as early as c. 490.
Nicholas’s name also occurs as “Nicholas of Myra of Lycia” on the tenth line of a list of attendees at the Council of Nicaea recorded by the historian Theodoret in the Historiae Ecclesiasticae Tripartitae Epitome, written sometime between 510 and 515. A single, offhand mention of Nicholas of Myra also occurs in the biography of another saint, Saint Nicholas of Sion, who apparently took the name “Nicholas” to honor him. The Life of Saint Nicholas of Sion, written around 250 years after Nicholas of Myra’s death, briefly mentions Nicholas of Sion visiting Nicholas’s tomb to pay homage to him. According to Jeremy Seal, the fact that Nicholas had a tomb that could be visited serves as the almost solitary definitive proof that he was a real historical figure.
In his treatise De statu animarum post mortem (written c. 583), the theologian Eustratius of Constantinople cites Saint Nicholas of Myra’s miracle of the three counts as evidence that souls may work independent from the body. Eustratius credits a lost Life of Saint Nicholas as his source. Nearly all the sources Eustratius references date from the late fourth century to early fifth century, indicating the Life of Saint Nicholas to which he refers was probably written during this time period, shortly after Nicholas’s death. The earliest complete account of Nicholas’s life that has survived to the present is a Life of Saint Nicholas, written in the early ninth century by Michael the Archimandrite (814–842), nearly 500 years after Nicholas’s probable death.
Despite its extremely late date, Michael the Archimandrite’s Life of Saint Nicholas is believed to heavily rely on older written sources and oral traditions. The identity and reliability of these sources, however, remains uncertain. Catholic historian D. L. Cann and medievalist Charles W. Jones both consider Michael the Archimandrite’s Life the only account of Saint Nicholas that is likely to contain any historical truth. Jona Lendering, a Dutch historian of classical antiquity, notes that Michael the Archimandrite’s Life does not contain a “conversion narrative“, which was unusual for saints’ lives of the period when it was written. He therefore argues that it is possible Michael the Archimandrite may have been relying on a source written before conversion narratives became popular, which would be a positive indication of that source’s reliability. He also notes, however, that many of the stories recounted by Michael the Archimandrite closely resemble stories told about the first-century AD Neopythagorean philosopher Apollonius of Tyana in the Life of Apollonius of Tyana, an eight-volume biography of him written in the early third century by the Greek writer Philostratus. Christian storytellers were known to adapt older pagan legends and attribute them to Christian saints. Because Apollonius’s hometown of Tyana was not far from Myra, Lendering contends that many popular stories about Apollonius may have become attached to Saint Nicholas.
Life and legends
Family and background
Accounts of Saint Nicholas’s life agree on the essence of his story, but modern historians disagree regarding how much of this story is actually rooted in historical fact. Traditionally, Nicholas was born in the city of Patara (Lycia et Pamphylia), a port on the Mediterranean Sea, in Asia Minor in the Roman Empire, to a wealthy family of Greek Christians. According to some accounts, his parents were named Epiphanius (Ἐπιφάνιος, Epiphánios) and Johanna (Ἰωάννα, Iōánna), but, according to others, they were named Theophanes (Θεοφάνης, Theophánēs) and Nonna (Νόννα, Nónna). In some accounts, Nicholas’s uncle was the bishop of the city of Myra, also in Lycia. Recognizing his nephew’s calling, Nicholas’s uncle ordained him as a priest.
Generosity and travels
After his parents died, Nicholas is said to have distributed their wealth to the poor. In his most famous exploit, which is first attested in Michael the Archimandrite’s Life of Saint Nicholas, Nicholas heard of a devout man who once had been wealthy, but had lost all his money due to the “plotting and envy of Satan.” The man had three daughters, but could not afford a proper dowry for them.[d] This meant that they would remain unmarried and probably, in absence of any other possible employment, be forced to become prostitutes. Hearing of the girls’ plight, Nicholas decided to help them, but, being too modest to help the family in public (or to save them the humiliation of accepting charity), he went to the house under the cover of night and threw a purse filled with gold coins through the window opening into the house. He did the same thing the next two nights, giving the man a total of three bags of gold, one for each of his three daughters.
According to Michael the Archimandrite’s version, on the third night, the father of the three girls stayed up and caught Saint Nicholas in the act of the charity. The father fell on his knees, thanking him. Nicholas ordered him not to tell anyone about the gift. The scene of Nicholas’s secret gift-giving is one of the most popular scenes in Christian devotional art, appearing in icons and frescoes from across Europe. Although depictions vary depending on time and place, Nicholas is often shown wearing a cowl while the daughters are typically shown in bed, dressed in their nightclothes. Many renderings contain a cypress tree or a cross-shaped cupola.
The historicity of this incident is disputed. Adam C. English argues for a historical kernel to the legend, noting the story’s early attestation as well as the fact that no similar stories were told about any other Christian saints. Jona Lendering, who also argues for the story’s authenticity, notes that a similar story is told in Philostratus’s Life of Apollonius of Tyana, in which Apollonius gives money to an impoverished father, but states that Michael the Archimandrite’s account is markedly different. Philostratus never mentions the fate of the daughters and, in his story, Apollonius’s generosity is purely motivated out of sympathy for the father; in Michael the Archimandrite’s account, however, Saint Nicholas is instead expressly stated to be motivated by a desire to save the daughters from being sold into prostitution. He argues that this desire to help women is most characteristic of fourth-century Christianity, due to the prominent role women played in the early Christian movement, rather than Greco-Roman paganism or the Christianity of Michael the Archimandrite’s time in the ninth century, by which point the position of women had drastically declined.
In another story, Nicholas is said to have visited the Holy Land. The ship he was on was nearly destroyed by a terrible storm, but he rebuked the waves, causing the storm to subside. Because of this miracle, Nicholas became venerated as the patron saint of sailors.
Bishop of Myra
After visiting the Holy Land, Nicholas returned to Myra. The bishop of Myra, who had succeeded Nicholas’s uncle, had recently died and the priests in the city had decided that the first priest to enter the church that morning would be made bishop. Nicholas went to the church to pray and was therefore proclaimed the new bishop. He is said to have been imprisoned and tortured during the Great Persecution under the Emperor Diocletian (ruled 284–305), but was released under the orders of the Emperor Constantine the Great (ruled 306–337). This story sounds plausible, but is not attested in the earliest sources and is therefore unlikely to be historical.
One of the earliest attested stories of Saint Nicholas is one in which he saves three innocent men from execution. According to Michael the Archimandrite, three innocent men were condemned to death by the governor Eustathius. As they were about to be executed, Nicholas appeared, pushed the executioner’s sword to the ground, released them from their chains, and angrily chastised a juror who had accepted a bribe. According to Jona Lendering, this story directly parallels an earlier story in Philostratus’s Life of Apollonius of Tyana, in which Apollonius prevents the execution of a man falsely condemned of banditry. Michael the Archimandrite also tells another story in which the consul Ablabius accepted a bribe to put three famous generals to death, in spite of their actual innocence. Saint Nicholas appeared to Constantine and Ablabius in dreams, informing Constantine of the truth and frightening Ablabius into releasing the generals, for fear of Hell.
Later versions of the story are more elaborate, interweaving the two stories together. According to one version, Emperor Constantine sent three of his most trusted generals, named Ursos, Nepotianos, and Herpylion, to put down a rebellion in Phrygia, but a storm forced them to take refuge in Myra. Unbeknownst to the generals, who were in the harbor, their soldiers further inland were fighting with local merchants and engaging in looting and destruction. Nicholas confronted the generals for allowing their soldiers to misbehave and the generals brought an end to the looting. Immediately after the soldiers had returned to their ships, Nicholas heard word of the three innocent men about to be executed and the three generals aided him in stopping the execution. Eustathius attempted to flee on his horse, but Nicholas stopped his horse and chastised him for his corruption. Eustathius, under the threat of being reported directly to the Emperor, repented of his corrupt ways. Afterward, the generals succeeded in ending the rebellion and were promoted by Constantine to even higher status. The generals’ enemies, however, slandered them to the consul Ablabius, telling him that they had not really put down the revolt, but instead encouraged their own soldiers to join it. The generals’ enemies also bribed Ablabius and he had the three generals imprisoned. Nicholas then made his dream appearances and the three generals were set free.
Council of Nicaea
In 325, Nicholas is said to have attended the First Council of Nicaea, where he is said to have been a staunch opponent of Arianism and devoted supporter of Trinitarianism, and one of the bishops who signed the Nicene Creed. Nicholas’s attendance at the Council of Nicaea is attested early by Theodore the Lector’s list of attendees, which records him as the 151st attendee. However, he is conspicuously never mentioned by Athanasius of Alexandria, the foremost defender of Trinitarianism at the Council, who knew all the notable bishops of the period, nor is he mentioned by the historian Eusebius, who was also present at the council. Adam C. English notes that lists of the attendees at Nicaea vary considerably, with shorter lists only including roughly 200 names, but longer lists including around 300. Saint Nicholas’s name only appears on the longer lists, not the shorter ones. Nicholas’s name appears on a total of three early lists, one of which, Theodore the Lector’s, is generally considered to be the most accurate. According to Jona Lendering, there are two main possibilities:
- Nicholas did not attend the Council of Nicaea, but someone at an early date was baffled that his name was not listed and so added him to the list. Many scholars tend to favor this explanation.
- Nicholas did attend the Council of Nicaea, but, at an early date, someone decided to remove his name from the list, apparently deciding that it was better if no one remembered he had been there.
A later legend, first attested in the fourteenth century, over 1,000 years after Nicholas’s death, holds that, during the Council of Nicaea, Nicholas lost his temper and slapped “a certain Arian” across the face. On account of this, Constantine revoked Nicholas’s miter and pallium. Stephen D. Greydanus concludes that, because of the story’s late attestation, it “has no historical value.” Jona Lendering defends the historicity of the incident, arguing that, because it was embarrassing and reflects poorly on Nicholas’s reputation, it is inexplicable why later hagiographers would have made it up. Later versions of the legend embellish it, making the heretic Arius himself and having Nicholas punch him rather than merely slapping him with his open hand. In these versions of the story, Nicholas is also imprisoned, but Christ and the Virgin Mary appear to him in his cell. He tells them he is imprisoned “for loving you” and they free him from his chains and restore his vestments. The scene of Nicholas slapping Arius is celebrated in Eastern Orthodox icons and episodes of Saint Nichola at Nicaea are shown in a series of paintings from the 1660s in the Basilica di San Nicola in Bari.
Other reputed miracles
One story tells how during a terrible famine, a malicious butcher lured three little children into his house, where he killed them, placing their remains in a barrel to cure, planning to sell them off as ham. Nicholas, visiting the region to care for the hungry, saw through the butcher’s lies and resurrected the pickled children by making the Sign of the Cross. Adam C. English notes that the story of the resurrection of the pickled children is a late medieval addition to the legendary biography of Saint Nicholas and that it is not found in any of his earliest Lives. Jona Lendering states that the story is “without any historical value.”
Though this story seems bizarre and horrifying to modern audiences, it was tremendously popular throughout the late Middle Ages and the Early Modern Period and widely beloved by ordinary folk. It is depicted in stained glass windows, wood panel paintings, tapestries, and frescoes. Eventually, the scene became so widely reproduced that, rather than showing the whole scene, artists began to merely depict Saint Nicholas with three naked children and a wooden barrel at his feet. According to English, eventually, people who had forgotten or never learned the story began misinterpreting representations of it. The fact that Saint Nicholas was shown with children led people to conclude he was the patron saint of children; meanwhile, the fact that he was shown with a barrel led people to conclude that he was the patron saint of brewers.
According to another story, during a great famine that Myra experienced in 311–312, a ship was in the port at anchor, loaded with wheat for the Emperor in Constantinople. Nicholas invited the sailors to unload a part of the wheat to help in the time of need. The sailors at first disliked the request, because the wheat had to be weighed accurately and delivered to the Emperor. Only when Nicholas promised them that they would not suffer any loss for their consideration, the sailors agreed. When they arrived later in the capital, they made a surprising find: the weight of the load had not changed, although the wheat removed in Myra was enough for two full years and could even be used for sowing.
It has long been traditionally assumed that Saint Nicholas was originally buried in his home town of Myra, where his relics are later known to have been kept, but some recent archaeological evidence indicates that Saint Nicholas may have originally been entombed in a rock-cut church located at the highest point on the small Turkish island of Gemile, only twenty miles away from his birthplace of Patara. Nicholas’s name is painted on part of the ruined building. In antiquity, the island was known as “Saint Nicholas Island” and today it is known in Turkish as Gemile Adasi, meaning “Island of Sailors”, in reference to Saint Nicholas’s traditional role as the patron saint of seafarers. The church was built in the fourth century, around the time of Nicholas’s death, and is typical of saints’ shrines from that time period. Nicholas was the only major saint associated with that part of Turkey. The church where historians believe he was originally entombed is at the western end of the great processional way.
In the mid-600s, Gemile was vulnerable to attack by Arab fleets, so Nicholas’s remains appear to have been moved from the island to the city of Myra, where Nicholas had served as bishop for most of his life. Myra is located roughly forty kilometers, or twenty-five miles, east of Gemile and its location further inland made it safer from seafaring Arab forces. It is said that, in Myra, the relics of Saint Nicholas each year exuded a clear watery liquid which smelled like rose water, called manna, or myrrh, which was believed by the faithful to possess miraculous powers. Because it was widely known that all Nicholas’s relics were at Myra in their sealed sarcophagus, it was rare during this period for forgers of relics to claim to possess those belonging to Saint Nicholas.
A solemn bronze statue of the saint by Russian sculptor Gregory Pototsky was donated by the Russian government in 2000, and was given a prominent place in the square fronting the medieval Church of St. Nicholas. In 2005, mayor Süleyman Topçu had the statue replaced by a red-suited plastic Santa Claus statue, because he wanted an image more recognisable to foreign visitors. Protests from the Russian government against this were successful, and the bronze statue was returned (albeit without its original high pedestal) to a corner nearer the church.
On 28 December 2009, the Turkish government announced that it would be formally requesting the return of Saint Nicholas’s skeletal remains to Turkey from the Italian government. Turkish authorities have asserted that Saint Nicholas himself desired to be buried at his episcopal town, and that his remains were illegally removed from his homeland. In 2017, an archaeological survey at St. Nicholas Church, Demre was reported to have found a temple below the modern church, with excavation work to be done that will allow researchers to determine whether it still holds Nicholas’s body.
After the Battle of Manzikert in 1071, the Byzantine Empire temporarily lost control over most of Asia Minor to the invading Seljuk Turks, and so Greek Christians of Myra became subjects of the Turks. At the same time the Catholic Church in the West had declared (in 1054 AD) that the Greek church, the official church of the Byzantine Empire, was in schism. Because of the many wars in the region, some Christians were concerned that access to the tomb might become difficult. Taking advantage of the confusion and the loss by the Greek Christian community of Myra of its Byzantine imperial protection, in the spring of 1087, Italian sailors from Bari in Apulia seized part of the remains of the saint from his burial church in Myra, over the objections of the Greek Orthodox monks in the church.
Adam C. English describes the removal of the relics from Myra as “essentially a holy robbery” and notes that the thieves were not only afraid of being caught or chased after by the locals, but also the power of Saint Nicholas himself. Returning to Bari, they brought the remains with them and cared for them. The remains arrived on 9 May 1087. Two years later, Pope Urban II inaugurated a new church, the Basilica di San Nicola, to Saint Nicholas in Bari. The Pope himself personally placed Nicholas’s relics into the tomb beneath the altar of the new church. The removal of Saint Nicholas’s relics from Myra and their arrival in Bari is reliably recorded by multiple chroniclers, including Orderic Vitalis and 9 May continued to be celebrated every year by western Christians as the day of Nicholas’s “translation”. Eastern Orthodox Christians and the Turks have both long regarded the unauthorized removal of the relics from Myra as a blatant theft, but the people of Bari have instead maintained that it was a rescue mission to save the bones from the Turkish invaders. A legend, shown on the ceiling of the Basilica di San Nicola, holds that Nicholas once visited Bari while he was alive and predicted that his bones would one day rest there.
Prior to the translation of Nicholas’s relics to Bari, his cult had been known in western Europe, but it had not been extremely popular. In autumn of 1096, Norman and Frankish soldiers mustered in Bari in preparation for the First Crusade. Although the Crusaders generally favored warrior saints, which Saint Nicholas was not, the presence of his relics in Bari made him materially accessible. Nicholas’s associations with aiding travelers and seafarers also made him a popular choice for veneration. Nicholas’s veneration by Crusaders helped promote his cult throughout western Europe.
After the relics were brought to Bari, they continued to produce “myrrh”, much to the joy of their new owners. Vials of myrrh from his relics have been taken all over the world for centuries, and can still be obtained from his church in Bari. Even up to the present day, a flask of manna is extracted from the tomb of Saint Nicholas every year on 6 December (the Saint’s feast day) by the clergy of the basilica. The myrrh is collected from a sarcophagus which is located in the basilica vault and could be obtained in the shop nearby. The liquid gradually seeps out of the tomb, but it is unclear whether it originates from the body within the tomb, or from the marble itself; since the town of Bari is a harbour, and the tomb is below sea level, there have been several natural explanations proposed for the manna fluid, including the transfer of seawater to the tomb by capillary action.
In 1966, a vault in the crypt underneath the Basilica di San Nicola was dedicated as an Orthodox chapel with an iconostasis in commemoration of the recent lifting of the anathemas the Roman Catholic and Eastern Orthodox Churches had issued against each other during the Great Schism in 1054. In May 2017, following talks between Pope Francis and Russian Orthodox Patriarch Kirill, a portion of the relics of St. Nicholas in Bari were sent on loan to Moscow. The relic was on display for veneration at Christ the Savior Cathedral before being taken to St. Petersburg in mid-June prior to returning to Bari. More than a million people lined up in Moscow for a momentary glimpse of the gilded ark holding one of the saint’s ribs.
The sailors from Bari only took the main bones of Nicholas’s skeleton, leaving all the minor fragments in the grave. The city of Venice had interest in obtaining the remaining fragments of his skeleton and, in 1044, they dedicated the San Nicolò al Lido monastery basilica to him on the north end of the Lido di Venezia. According to a single chronicle written by an anonymous monk at this monastery, in 1100, a fleet of Venetian ships accompanied by Bishop Henri sailed past Myra on their way to Palestine for the First Crusade. Bishop Henri insisted for the fleet to turn back and set anchor in Myra. The Venetians took the remaining bones of Saint Nicholas, as well as those of several other bishops of Myra, from the church there, which was only guarded by four Orthodox monks, and brought them to Venice, where they deposited them in the San Nicolò al Lido. This tradition was lent credence in two scientific investigations of the relics in Bari and Venice, which confirmed that the relics in the two cities are anatomically compatible and may belong to the same person. It is said that someone dies every time the bones of Saint Nicholas in Venice are disturbed. The last time the bones were examined was in July 1992.
Because of Nicholas’s skeleton’s long confinement in Myra, after it was brought to Bari, the demand for pieces of it rose. Small bones quickly began to disperse across western Europe. The sailors who had transported the bones gave one tooth and two fragments chipped from Nicholas’s sarcophagus to the Norman knight William Pantulf. Pantulf took these relics to his hometown of Noron in Normandy, where they were placed in the local Church of St. Peter in June 1092. In 1096, the duke of Apulia gave several bones of Saint Nicholas to the count of Flanders, which he then enshrined in the Abbey of Watten. According to legend, in 1101, Saint Nicholas appeared in a vision to a French clerk visiting the shrine at Bari and told him to take one of his bones with him to his hometown of Port, near Nancy. The clerk took a finger bone back with him to Port, where a chapel was built to Saint Nicholas. Port became an important center of devotion in the Nicholas cult and, in the fifteenth century, a church known as the Basilique Saint-Nicolas was built there dedicated to him. The town itself is now known as “Saint Nicolas de Port” in honor of Nicholas.
The clergy at Bari strategically gave away samples of Nicholas’s bones to promote the cult and enhance its prestige. Many of these bones were initially kept in Constantinople, but, after the Sack of Constantinople in 1204 during the Fourth Crusade, these fragments were scattered across western Europe. A hand claimed to belong to Saint Nicholas was kept in the San Nicola in Carcere in Rome. This church, whose name means “Saint Nicholas in Chains”, was built on the site of a former municipal prison. Stories quickly developed about Nicholas himself having been held in that prison. Mothers would come to the church to pray to Saint Nicholas for their jailed sons to be released and repentant criminals would place votive offerings in the church. As a result of this, Nicholas became the patron saint of prisoners and those falsely accused of crimes. An index finger claimed to belong to Saint Nicholas was kept in a chapel along the Ostian Way in Rome. Another finger was held in Ventimiglia in Liguria. Today, many churches in Europe, Russia, and the United States claim to possess small relics, such as a tooth or a finger bone.
An Irish tradition states that the relics of Saint Nicholas are also reputed to have been stolen from Myra by local Norman crusading knights in the twelfth century and buried near Thomastown, County Kilkenny, where a stone slab marks the site locally believed to be his grave. According to the Irish antiquarian John Hunt, the tomb probably actually belongs to a local priest from Jerpoint Abbey.
Whereas the devotional importance of relics and the economics associated with pilgrimages caused the remains of most saints to be divided up and spread over numerous churches in several countries, Saint Nicholas is unusual in that most of his bones have been preserved in one spot: his grave crypt in Bari. Even with the allegedly continuing miracle of the manna, the archdiocese of Bari has allowed for one scientific survey of the bones. In the late 1950s, while the crypt was undergoing much-needed restoration, the bones were removed from it for the first time since their interment in 1089. A special Pontiffical Commission permitted Luigi Martino, a professor of human anatomy at the University of Bari, to examine the bones under the Commission’s supervision. Martino took thousands of measurements, detailed scientific drawings, photographs, and x-rays. These examinations revealed the saint to have died at over seventy years of age and to have been of average height and slender-to-average build. He also suffered from severe chronic arthritis in his spine and pelvis.
In 2004, at the University of Manchester, researchers Caroline Wilkinson and Fraco Introna reconstructed the saint’s face based on Martino’s examination. The review of the data revealed that the historical Saint Nicholas was 5’6″ in height and had a broken nose, which had partially healed, revealing that the injury had been suffered ante mortem. The broken nose appeared to conform with hagiographical reports that Saint Nicholas had been beaten and tortured during the Diocletianic Persecution. The facial reconstruction was produced by Dr. Caroline Wilkinson at the University of Manchester and was shown on a BBC2 TV program The Real Face of Santa. In 2014, the Face Lab at Liverpool John Moores University produced an updated reconstruction of Saint Nicholas’s face.
In 2017, two researchers from Oxford University, Professor Tom Higham and Doctor Georges Kazan, radiocarbon dated a fragment of a pelvis claimed to belong to Saint Nicholas. The fragment originally came from a church in Lyons, France and, at the time of testing, was in the possession of Father Dennis O’Neill, a priest from St Martha of Bethany Church in Illinois. The results of the radiocarbon dating confirmed that the pelvis dates to the fourth century AD, around the same time that Saint Nicholas would have died, and is not a medieval forgery. The bone was one of the oldest the Oxford team had ever examined. According to Professor Higham, most of the relics the team has examined turn out to be too young to have actually belonged to the saint to whom they are attributed, but he states, “This bone fragment, in contrast, suggests that we could possibly be looking at remains from St Nicholas himself.” Doctor Kazan believes the pelvis fragment may come from the same individual as the skeleton divided between the churches in Bari and Venice, since the bone they tested comes from the left pubis, and the only pelvis bone in the collection at Bari is the left ilium. In the absence of DNA testing, however, it is not yet possible to know for certain whether the pelvis is from the same man.
Veneration and celebrations
Among the Greeks and Italians he is a favorite of sailors, fishermen, ships and sailing. As a result and over time, he has become the patron saint of several cities which maintain harbours. In centuries of Greek folklore, Nicholas was seen as “The Lord of the Sea”, often described by modern Greek scholars as a kind of Christianized version of Poseidon. In modern Greece, he is still easily among the most recognizable saints and 6 December finds many cities celebrating their patron saint. He is also the patron saint of all of Greece and particularly of the Hellenic Navy.
In the Eastern Orthodox Church, Saint Nicholas’s memory is celebrated on almost every Thursday of the year (together with the Apostles) with special hymns to him which are found in the liturgical book known as the Octoechos. Soon after the transfer of Saint Nicholas’s relics from Myra to Bari, a Russian version of his Life and an account of the transfer of his relics were written by a contemporary to this event. Devotional akathists and canons have been composed in his honour, and are frequently chanted by the faithful as they ask for his intercession. He is mentioned in the Liturgy of Preparation during the Divine Liturgy (Eastern Orthodox Eucharist) and during the All-Night Vigil. Many Orthodox churches will have his icon, even if they are not named after him. In Oriental Orthodoxy, the Coptic Church observes the Departure of St. Nicholas on 10 Kiahk, or 10 Taḫśaś in Ethiopia, which corresponds to the Julian Calendar’s 6 December and Gregorian Calendar’s 19 December.
Nicholas had a reputation for secret gift-giving, such as putting coins in the shoes of those who left them out for him, a practice celebrated on his feast day, 6 December. For those who still observe the Julian calendar the celebration currently takes place thirteen days later than it happens in the Gregorian calendar and Revised Julian calendar.
In late medieval England, on Saint Nicholas Day parishes held Yuletide “boy bishop” celebrations. As part of this celebration, youths performed the functions of priests and bishops, and exercised rule over their elders. Today, Saint Nicholas is still celebrated as a great gift-giver in several Western European and Central European countries. According to one source, in medieval times nuns used the night of 6 December to deposit baskets of food and clothes anonymously at the doorsteps of the needy. According to another source, on 6 December every sailor or ex-sailor of the Low Countries (which at that time was virtually all of the male population) would descend to the harbour towns to participate in a church celebration for their patron saint. On the way back they would stop at one of the various Nicholas fairs to buy some hard-to-come-by goods, gifts for their loved ones and invariably some little presents for their children. While the real gifts would only be presented at Christmas, the little presents for the children were given right away, courtesy of Saint Nicholas. This and his miracle of him resurrecting the three butchered children made Saint Nicholas a patron saint of children and later students as well.
Santa Claus evolved from Dutch traditions regarding Saint Nicholas (Sinterklaas). When the Dutch established the colony of New Amsterdam, they brought the legend and traditions of Sinterklaas with them. Howard G. Hageman, of New Brunswick Theological Seminary, maintains that the tradition of celebrating Sinterklaas in New York existed in the early settlements of the Hudson Valley, although by the early nineteenth century had fallen by the way. St. Nicholas Park, located at the intersection of St. Nicholas Avenue and 127th Street, in an area originally settled by Dutch farmers, is named for St. Nicholas of Myra.
Saint Nicholas is a popular subject portrayed on countless Eastern Orthodox icons, particularly Russian and Serbian ones. He is depicted as an Orthodox bishop, wearing the omophorion and holding a Gospel Book. Sometimes he is depicted wearing the Eastern Orthodox mitre, sometimes he is bareheaded. Iconographically, Nicholas is depicted as an elderly man with a short, full, white, fluffy beard and balding head. In commemoration of the miracle attributed to him by tradition at the Council of Nicea, he is sometimes depicted with Christ over his left shoulder holding out a Gospel Book to him and the Theotokos over his right shoulder holding the omophorion. Because of his patronage of mariners, occasionally Saint Nicholas will be shown standing in a boat or rescuing drowning sailors; Medieval Chants and Polyphony, image on the cover of the Book of Hours of Duke of Berry, 1410.
In depictions of Saint Nicholas from Bari, he is usually shown as dark-skinned, probably to emphasize his foreign origin. The emphasis on his foreignness may have been intended to enhance Bari’s reputation by displaying that it had attracted the patronage of a saint from a far-off country. In Roman Catholic iconography, Saint Nicholas is depicted as a bishop, wearing the insignia of this dignity: a bishop’s vestments, a mitre and a crozier. The episode with the three dowries is commemorated by showing him holding in his hand either three purses, three coins or three balls of gold. Depending on whether he is depicted as patron saint of children or sailors, his images will be completed by a background showing ships, children or three figures climbing out of a wooden barrel (the three slaughtered children he resurrected).
In a strange twist, the three gold balls referring to the dowry affair are sometimes metaphorically interpreted as being oranges or other fruits. As in the Low Countries in medieval times oranges most frequently came from Spain, this led to the belief that the Saint lives in Spain and comes to visit every winter bringing them oranges, other ‘wintry’ fruits and tales of magical creatures.
In 1948, Benjamin Britten completed a cantata, Saint Nicolas on a text by Eric Crozier which covers the saint’s legendary life in a dramatic sequence of events. A tenor soloist appears as Saint Nicolas, with a mixed choir, boys singers, strings, piano duet, organ and percussion.
- Greek: Ἅγιος Νικόλαος, Hágios Nikólaos; Latin: Sanctus Nicolaus
- The date of his birth and the year of his death are disputed, but 6 December has long been established as the traditional date of his death. Jeremy Seal remarks, “As vampires shun daylight, so saints are distinguished from ordinary mortals by the anniversaries they keep. The date of their death rather than their birth is commemorated.”
- Νικόλαος ὁ Θαυματουργός, Nikólaos ho Thaumaturgós
- Joe L. Wheeler and Jona Lendering both note that the legends of Saint Nicholas are filled with sets of three, which may be symbolic for Nicholas’s vehement defense of the Holy Trinity.
- Book of Martyrs. Catholic Book Publishing. 1948.
- “Serbia”. Saint Nicholas Center. Archived from the original on 8 December 2010. Retrieved 4 April2012.
- “Who is St. Nicholas?”. St. Nicholas Center. Archived from the original on 10 October 2010. Retrieved 7 December 2010.
- “St. Nicholas”. Orthodox America. Archived from the original on 7 September 2011. Retrieved 7 December 2010.
- Seal 2005, p. 2.
- Seal 2005, pp. 2–3.
- Lloyd, John; Mitchinson, John (December 2008). The book of general ignorance (Noticeably stouter edition). Faber and Faber. p. 318. ISBN978-0-571-24692-2.
- Cunningham, Lawrence (2005). A brief history of saints. Wiley-Blackwell. p. 33. ISBN978-1-4051-1402-8.
The fourth-century Saint Nikolaos of Myra, Greek Anatolia (in present-day Turkey) spread to Europe through the port city of Bari in southern Italy… Devotion to the saint in the Low countries became blended with Nordic folktales, transforming this early Greek Orthodox Bishop into that Christmas icon, Santa Claus.
- Collins, Ace (2009). Stories Behind Men of Faith. Zondervan. p. 121. ISBN9780310564560.
Nicholas was born in the Greek city of Patara around 270 AD. The son of a businessman named Theophanes and his wife, Nonna, the child’s earliest years were spent in Myra… As a port on the Mediterranean Sea, in the middle of the sea lanes that linked Egypt, Greece and Rome, Myra was a destination for traders, fishermen, and merchant sailors. Spawned by the spirit of both the city’s Greek heritage and the ruling Roman government, cultural endeavours such as art, drama, and music were mainstays of everyday life.
- Wheeler 2010, pp. vii–x.
- Seal 2005, pp. 14–15.
- Seal 2005, p. 14.
- Wheeler 2010, pp. vii–viii.
- Wheeler 2010, p. viii.
- Blacker, Burgess & Ogden 2013, p. 250.
- Wheeler 2010, p. ix.
- Blacker, Burgess & Ogden 2013, p. 251.
- Wheeler 2010, p. x.
- Seal 2005, p. 15.
- Wheeler 2010, p. xi.
- Introduction to Michael the Archimandrite’s Life of Saint Nicholas
- Lendering 2006, p. Nicholas of Myra.
- Blacker, Burgess & Ogden 2013, p. 249.
- Domenico, Roy Palmer (2002). The regions of Italy: a reference guide to history and culture. Greenwood Publishing Group. p. 21. ISBN0-313-30733-4.
Saint Nicholas (Bishop of Myra) replaced Sabino as the patron saint of the city… A Greek from what is now Turkey, he lived in the early fourth century.
- Burman, Edward (1991). Emperor to emperor: Italy before the Renaissance. Constable. p. 126. ISBN0-09-469490-7.
For although he is the patron saint of Russia, and the model for a northern invention such as Santa Claus, Nicholas of Myra was a Greek.
- Ingram, W. Scott; Ingram, Asher, Scott; Robert (2004). Greek Immigrants. Infobase Publishing. p. 24. ISBN9780816056897.
The original Santa Claus, Saint Nicholas, was a Greek born in Asia Minor (now modern Turkey) in the fourth century. He was very religious from an early age and devoted his life to Christianity.
- Lanzi, Gioia (2004). Saints and their symbols: recognizing saints in art and in popular images. Liturgical Press. p. 111. ISBN0-8146-2970-9.
Nicholas was born around 270 AD in Patara on the coast of what is now western Turkey.
- Lanzi, Gioia (2004). Saints and their symbols: recognizing saints in art and in popular images. Liturgical Press. p. 111. ISBN0-8146-2970-9.
Nicholas was born around 270 AD in Patara on the coast of what is now western Turkey; his parents were Epiphanius and Joanna.
- Ferguson 1976, p. 136.
- Bennett, William J. (2009). The True Saint Nicholas: Why He Matters to Christmas. Howard Books. pp. 14–17. ISBN978-1-4165-6746-2.
- Michael the Archimandrite, Life of Saint Nicholas Chapters 10–11
- Wheeler 2010, p. 38.
- Michael the Archimandrite, Life of Saint Nicholas Chapters 12–18
- Michael the Archimandrite, Life of Saint Nicholas Chapters 16–18
- Seal 2005, p. 1.
- English & Crumm 2012.
- Faber, Paul (2006). Sinterklaas overseas: the adventures of a globetrotting saint. KIT Publishers. p. 7. ISBN9789068324372.
The historical figure that served as model for the Dutch Sinterklaas was born around 270 AD in the port of Patara in the Greek province of Lycia in Asia Minor (present-day Turkey). His Greek name Nikolaos means something along the lines of “victor of the people”.
- Blacker, Burgess & Ogden 2013, pp. 249–250.
- Wilkinson 2018, p. 163.
- Lendering 2006, p. Medieval Saint.
- Michael the Archimandrite, Life of Saint Nicholas Chapter 31
- Michael the Archimandrite, Life of Saint Nicholas Chapter 33
- Wheeler 2010, pp. 38–39.
- Wheeler 2010, p. 39.
- Wheeler 2010, pp. 39–40.
- Wheeler 2010, p. 40.
- Wheeler 2010, p. 41.
- Greydanus 2016.
- Wheeler & Rosenthal, “St Nicholas: A Closer Look at Christmas”, (Chapter 1), Nelson Reference & Electronic, 2005
- Federer, William J. (2002). There Really Is a Santa Claus – History of St. Nicholas & Christmas Holiday Traditions. Amerisearch, Inc. p. 26. ISBN978-0965355742.
- Davis, Leo Donald (1990). The First Seven Ecumenical Councils (325–787) Their History and Theology. Liturgical Press. p. 58. ISBN0-8146-5616-1.
- Wheeler 2010, p. xii.
- Seal 2005, p. 93.
- Wheeler 2010, p. 35.
- “St. Nicholas Center ::: Saint Nicolas”. http://www.stnicholascenter.org.
- English 2016, p. 132.
- English 2016, pp. 132–133.
- English 2016, p. 133.
- Le Saux, Françoise Hazel Marie (2005). A companion to Wace. D.S. Brewer. ISBN978-1-84384-043-5.
- Keys 1993.
- Jones 1978, pp. 176–193.
- de Ceglia, Francesco Paolo: “The science of Santa Claus : discussions on the Manna of Nicholas of Myra in the modern age”. In Nuncius – 27 (2012) 2, pp. 241–269
- Seal 2005, pp. 135–136.
- Seal 2005, p. 135.
- “Saint Nicholas”. St. John Cantius Parish. Retrieved 25 August 2016.
- “Turks want Santa’s bones returned”. BBC News. 28 December 2009. Retrieved 23 May 2010.
- “Santa Claus’s bones must be brought back to Turkey from Italy”. Todayszaman.com. 28 December 2009. Archived from the original on 11 December 2013. Retrieved 12 December 2013.
- “Tomb of St Nicholas may have been discovered in Turkey”. ir.ishtimes.com. 4 October 2017. Retrieved 7 October 2017.
- Cullen 2017.
- Seal 2005, p. 101.
- Ott, Michael (1907). “Nicholas of Myra”. The Catholic Encyclopedia. 11. New York: Robert Appleton Company.
- Butler, Albin (1860). Lives of the Saints. 2.
- Wheeler, Joe L.; Rosenthal, Jim (2005). “Chapter 1”. St. Nicholas: A Closer Look at Christmas. Thomas Nelson. ISBN9781418504076.
- Medrano 2017.
- Seal 2005, p. 131.
- Seal 2005, pp. 93–94.
- Seal 2005, pp. 100–102.
- Seal 2005, pp. 114–115.
- Seal 2005, p. 115.
- Seal 2005, pp. 115–116.
- Seal 2005, pp. 114–116.
- Seal 2005, p. 117.
- “Major relics of St Nicholas visit Russia”, Vatican Radio, May 21, 2017
- Filipov, David. “Why more than a million Russians have lined up to see a piece of the rib of Saint Nicholas”, The Washington Post, June 29, 2017
- University of Oxford 2017.
- Seal 2005, p. 136.
- Seal 2005, pp. 125–127.
- Seal 2005, pp. 125–126.
- Seal 2005, p. 127.
- Seal 2005, pp. 127–136.
- “Ci sono ossa di san Nicola anche a Venezia?”[There are also bones of St. Nicholas in Venice?]. enec.it (in Italian). Europe – Near East Center. Archived from the original on 9 December 2012. Retrieved 2 March 2017.
- “Ma le ossa sono tutte a Bari?” [Are all the bones in Bari?]. enec.it (in Italian). Europe – Near East Center. Archived from the original on 8 December 2012. Retrieved 2 March 2017.
- Seal 2005, pp. 136–137.
- Seal 2005, p. 137.
- “Relics of St. Nicholas – Where are They?”. Saint Nicholas Center. Retrieved 11 February 2014.
- “Heritage Conservation Plan: Newtown Jerpoint County Kilkenny”(PDF). An Chomhairle Oidhreachta/The Heritage Council. 2007. p. 81. Archived from the original(PDF) on 12 October 2016. Retrieved 2 March 2017.
- Hunt 1974.
- “Anatomical Examination of the Bari Relics”. Saint Nicholas Center. Retrieved 6 December 2013.
- “The Real Face of St. Nicholas”. St. Nicholas Center. St. Nicholas Center. Retrieved 15 December2016.
- “The Real Face of Santa”. (navigate to 4th of 4 pictures)
- Coughlan 2017.
- “Greece”. St. Nicholas Center. Retrieved 12 December 2013.
- “Feasts and Saints, Commemorated on May 9”. Orthodox Church in America. Retrieved 4 April 2012.
- “St. Nicholas the Wonderworker”. Synaxarium (Lives of Saints). Coptic Orthodox Church Network. Retrieved 13 December 2013.
- “Commemorations for Kiahk 10”. Coptic Orthodox Church Network. Retrieved 13 December2013.
- Carus, Louise (1 October 2002). The Real St. Nicholas. Quest Books. p. 2. ISBN9780835608138.
In Myra, the traditional St. Nicholas Feast Day is still celebrated on December 6, which many believe to be the anniversary of St. Nicholas’s death. This day is honored throughout Western Christendom, in lands comprising both Catholic and Protestant communities (in the Eastern Orthodox Church, the Saint’s feast date is December 19). On December 5, the eve of St. Nicholas Day, some American boys and girls put their shoes outside their bedroom door and leave a small gift in hopes that Saint Nicholas soon will be there.
- McKnight, George H. (1917). St. Nicholas: His Legend and His Role in the Christmas Celebration and Other Popular Customs. New York: Putnam’s. pp. 37–52. ISBN978-1115125055. Retrieved 25 August 2016.
- Joe Wheeler & Jim Rosenthal, “St. Nicholas A Closer Look at Christmas”, (Chapter 8), Nelson Reference & Electronic, 2005.
- Hageman, Howard G., 1979. “Review of Saint Nicholas of Myra, Bari, and Manhattan: Biography of a Legend”, Theology Today, Princeton. Princeton Theological Seminary. vol. 36, issue 3Archived7 December 2008 at the Wayback Machine
- “St. Nicholas Park”, New York City Department of Parks & Recreation
- Wheeler, Rosenthal, “St Nicholas: A Closer Look at Christmas”, p. 96, Nelson Reference & Electronic, 2005.
- Seal 2005, p. 111.
- “St. Nicholas”. St. John Cantius Parish.
- “Saint Nicolas / Op. 42. Cantata for tenor solo, chorus (SATB), semi-chorus (SA), four boy singers and string orchestra, piano duet, percussion and organ”. Britten-Pears Foundation. 1948. Retrieved 5 December 2018.
- Blacker, Jean; Burgess, Glyn S.; Ogden, Amy V. (2013), “The Life of St Nicholas: Introduction”, Wace: The Hagiographical Works: The Conception Nostre Dame and the Lives of St Margaret and St Nicholas, Leiden, The Netherlands and Boston, Massachusetts: Brill, ISBN978-90-04-24768-0
- Coughlan, Sean (6 December 2017), “‘Santa’s bone’ proved to be correct age”, BBC News: Family & Education, retrieved 7 December 2017
- Cullen, Ellie (6 December 2017), “Bone fragment thought to belong to saint who inspired Father Christmas discovered in Italy: Academics have tested findings and say they belong to correct epoch”, The Atlantic
- English, Adam C.; Crumm, David (2 December 2012), “Adam English digging back into the real St. Nicholas”, ReadTheSpirit online magazine
- English, Adam C. (2016), Christmas: Theological Anticipations, Eugene, Oregon: Wipf & Stock Publishers, ISBN978-1-4982-3933-2
- Ferguson, George (1976) , “St. Nicholas of Myra or Bari”, Signs and Symbols in Christian Art, Oxford, England: Oxford University Press, pp. 135–136
- Greydanus, Steven D. (6 December 2016), Let’s Stop Celebrating St. Nicholas Punching Arius: One, he didn’t do it. Two, it wouldn’t be such a great thing if he had., National Catholic Register
- Hunt, John (1974), Irish Medieval Figure Sculpture, 1200–1600: A Study of Irish Tombs with Notes on Costume and Armour, Dublin, Ireland: Irish University Press, ISBN085667012X
- Jones, Charles W. (1978), Saint Nikolaos of Myra, Bari, and Manhattan: Biography of a Legend, Chicago, Illinois: University of Chicago Press, ISBN978-0-226-40700-5
- Keys, David (17 December 1993), “Santa’s tomb is found off Turkey: Academics claim to have found where St Nicholas was buried. David Keys reports”, The Independent, retrieved 19 December 2011
- Lendering, Jona (2006), “Nicholas of Myra”, Livius.org
- Medrano, Kastalia (5 December 2017), “Santa is Dead—And the Bones of Old St Nicholas Are Buried in a Bunch of Different Churches”, Newsweek: Tech & Science
- University of Oxford (5 December 2017), Could ancient bones suggest Santa was real?: New Oxford University research has revealed that bones long venerated as relics of the saint, do in fact date from the right historical period., University of Oxford
- Seal, Jeremy (2005), Nicholas: The Epic Journey from Saint to Santa Claus, New York City, New York and London, England: Bloomsbury, ISBN978-1-58234-419-5
- Wheeler, Joe L. (2010), Saint Nicholas, Nashville, Tennessee: Thomas Nelson, ISBN978-1-59555-115-3
- Wilkinson, Caroline (2018), “Archaeological Facial Depiction for People from the Past with Facial Differences”, in Skinner, Patricia; Cock, Emily (eds.), Approaching Facial Difference: Past and Present, London, England: Bloomsbury Academic, ISBN978-1-3500-2830-2
- Asano, Kazoo, ed. (2010). The Island of St. Nicholas. Excavation and Research of Gemiler Island Area, Lycia, Turkey. Osaka: Osaka University Press.
- Wheeler & Rosenthal (2005). St. Nicholas: A Closer Look at Christmas. Nelson Reference & Electronic.[full citation needed
We have traced the gift giving of Christmas to the gifts of the wise men, traditionally imagined as three kings from the East. The gifts are gold, frankincense and myrrh, for King, priest and prophet. The Wiki for the Biblical Magi is appended below.
It is amazing that the Astrologers of Babylon could figure the birth of the Messiah in place and time. Both Jews and Christians reject astrology, though there is that one line in Maimonides’ Letter on Astrology, near the end, where he speaks of what occurs as coming “through” the stars, and makes us wonder… Maimonides and others reject Jesus as the Messiah or the Christ because he was killed, while prophecy says that the messiah will reign, and reign “forever,” as Lincoln tries to say of our government of by and for the people, that it shall “not perish from this earth.” Some think his star was a conjunction of Venus or Saturn and Jupiter about 4-7 B. C., but the star seen by the shepherds hovers, and brings them without astrology right to the very manger-cave in Bethlehem, which is why we have shepherds wandering around in our manger scenes. Herod dies about 4 B.C., but is alive at the slaughter of the innocents. When the three wise men find him (After accidentally going to the address of Monty Python’s Brian- who keeps getting mistaken for the Messiah), they give him gifts of gold, frankincense and myrrh, said to indicate that the one born is a king, a priest and a prophet, myrrh being an herb of sorrow.
The prophecies of the Messiah are obvious to the Jews who are questioned by Herod and know from scripture, somehow, that the messiah will be born in Bethlehem (Micah 5:2). Like the line of Isaiah (7:14), “a “virgin will conceive,” it is not clear how they know that this is a prophecy of the messiah. But Isaiah prophesies Galilee, and also the things he will be called, which include “Mighty God (Oxford, or “lord”) and “Everlasting Father.” (This is also where Cheech and Chong’s sources got “Prince of Peace,” when Jesus is stopped at the southern border!) But it is also prophesied that he will be “called a Nazarene.” and called “out of Egypt.” There are relatives of the Jews in Ethiopia, from the marriage of Solomon to the Queen of Sheba, as there may have been in Egypt, and we suspect the Christ was hidden among Ethiopian Jews. These claim that the ark is there, while 2 Maccabees 2:4-8 says it is within eyesight of the tomb of Moses, hidden by Jeremiah in the Mountains of Jordan at the edge of the Holy Land. The ground movements around Galilee and Nazareth can also be deciphered, as Elizabeth is an aunt of Mary, perhaps a sister of St. Ann the mother of Mary, who was married to Joachim. Though they did not travel much, Jesus knew John the Baptist as a grand-cousin, the son of the Aunt of his mother. If the mother of John the Apostle, Salome, was a sister of Mary, John the Apostle may have been a cousin of Jesus, perhaps fishing near Peter on the sea of Galilee there to the east. And were these, Elizabeth, Mary, Zecharia and Joachim, also of the lineage of David? Otherwise, the way we understand the annunciation and the immaculate conception, Jesus would be the descendant of David by law but not by nature. Most in that region are from other of the twelve tribes. But Elizabeth and Joachim lived just South of Nazareth but in a different province (Samaria). It is not unusual, and would not be especially mentioned, that a “young woman” conceive, though this is how the line might read, and how it is read following Maimonides.
It is under Augustus that Herod commits the slaughter of the innocents, Rachel weeping for the children of Ramah. The interaction between human choice and divine Providence is most amusing here, as Herod is able to make the birth of the messiah the cause of the slaughter, yet the angel is able to prevent the infant Jesus from being caught up in this. If anyone wondered whether the character of Augustus is honestly portrayed in the Rex Augusti, the autobiography, well there it is. And how did a fellow like Herod come to be called King of the Jews? Josephus lets it slip that Herod paid off Caesar and Antony, and also that Cleopatra added Herod to her trophy case. Despite writing under Roman emperors, Josephus, like Tacitus, gives the historian a second line, so that the Roman history can be seen by triangulation.
In the end, the three wise guys were not very wise to report the birth of the messiah to Herod king of the Jews. Providence can apparently protect the infant Jesus, but not the children of Bethlehem, and that this should result from the gifts and adoration of the three wise men shows how paradoxical the question of providence is in the scriptures- for as we imagine, the birth of the Messiah would not result in such a counter-stroke.
Gift-giving is a sharing in the divine fullness and overflow that increases our joy. We think it sad that the Witnesses, trying to purify our sects from idolatry, have rejected Santa and Christmas as though it were a Pagan Holiday. When Paulo chides the Roman Christians for observing “days and months and years,” we think it also an idolatry to make so much of such a thing. We do not adore Santa Claus, and the adoration of the Magi is fitting for the Messiah, but no mere man. Hence, the Christ is worshiped in the scriptures on various significant occasions.
The Who – [Christmas https://youtu.be/7BWiYJ3yykw via @YouTube]:
Did you ever see the faces of the children
They get so excited
Waking up on Christmas morning
Hours before the winter sun’s ignited
They believe in dreams and all they mean
Including heaven’s generosity
Peeping round the door
To see what parcels are for free
Appendix: Wikipedia: The Biblical Magi:
The biblical Magi[a] (/ˈmeɪdʒaɪ/ or /ˈmædʒaɪ/; singular: magus), also referred to as the (Three) Wise Men or (Three) Kings, were – in the Gospel of Matthew and Christian tradition – distinguished foreigners who visited Jesus after his birth, bearing gifts of gold, frankincense and myrrh. They are regular figures in traditional accounts of the nativity celebrations of Christmas and are an important part of Christian tradition.
Matthew is the only one of the four canonical gospels to mention the Magi. Matthew reports that they came “from the east” to worship the “king of the Jews”. The gospel never mentions the number of Magi, but most western Christian denominations have traditionally assumed them to have been three in number, based on the statement that they brought three gifts. In Eastern Christianity, especially the Syriac churches, the Magi often number twelve. Their identification as kings in later Christian writings is probably linked to Psalm 72:11, “May all kings fall down before him”.
Traditional nativity scenes depict three “Wise Men” visiting the infant Jesus on the night of his birth, in a manger accompanied by the shepherds and angels, but this should be understood as an artistic convention allowing the two separate scenes of the Adoration of the Shepherds on the birth night and the later Adoration of the Magi to be combined for convenience. The single biblical account in Matthew simply presents an event at an unspecified point after Christ’s birth in which an unnumbered party of unnamed “wise men” (μάγοι, mágoi) visits him in a house (οἰκίαν, oikian), not a stable, with only “his mother” mentioned as present. The New Revised Standard Version of Matthew 2:1–12 describes the visit of the Magi in this manner:
In the time of King Herod, after Jesus was born in Bethlehem of Judea, wise men from the East came to Jerusalem, asking, “Where is the child who has been born king of the Jews? For we observed his star at its rising, and have come to pay him homage.” When King Herod heard this, he was frightened and all Jerusalem with him; and calling together all the chief priests and scribes of the people, he inquired of them where the Messiah was to be born. They told him, “In Bethlehem of Judea; for so it has been written by the prophet: ‘And you, Bethlehem, in the land of Judah, are by no means least among the rulers of Judah; for from you shall come a ruler who is to shepherd my people Israel.'” Then Herod secretly called for the wise men and learned from them the exact time when the star had appeared. Then he sent them to Bethlehem, saying, “Go and search diligently for the child; and when you have found him, bring me word so that I may also go and pay him homage.” When they had heard the king, they set out; and there, ahead of them, went the star that they had seen at its rising, until it stopped over the place where the child was. When they saw that the star had stopped, they were overwhelmed with joy. On entering the house, they saw the child with Mary his mother; and they knelt down and paid him homage. Then, opening their treasure chests, they offered him gifts of gold, frankincense, and myrrh. And having been warned in a dream not to return to Herod, they left for their own country by another path.
The text specifies no interval between the birth and the visit, and artistic depictions and the closeness of the traditional dates of December 25 and January 6 encourage the popular assumption that the visit took place the same winter as the birth, but later traditions varied, with the visit taken as occurring up to two winters later. This maximum interval explained Herod’s command at Matthew 2:16–18 that the Massacre of the Innocents included boys up to two years old. More recent commentators, not tied to the traditional feast days, may suggest a variety of intervals.
The wise men are mentioned twice shortly thereafter in verse 16, in reference to their avoidance of Herod after seeing Jesus, and what Herod had learned from their earlier meeting. The star which they followed has traditionally become known as the Star of Bethlehem.
The Magi are popularly referred to as wise men and kings. The word magi is the plural of Latin magus, borrowed from Greek μάγος (magos), as used in the original Greek text of the Gospel of Matthew (in the plural: μάγοι, magoi). Greek magos itself is derived from Old Persian maguŝ from the Avestan magâunô, i.e., the religious caste into which Zoroaster was born (see Yasna 33.7: “ýâ sruyê parê magâunô” = “so I can be heard beyond Magi”). The term refers to the Persian priestly caste of Zoroastrianism. As part of their religion, these priests paid particular attention to the stars and gained an international reputation for astrology, which was at that time highly regarded as a science. Their religious practices and use of astrology caused derivatives of the term Magi to be applied to the occult in general and led to the English term magic, although Zoroastrianism was in fact strongly opposed to sorcery. The King James Version translates the term as wise men; the same translation is applied to the wise men led by Daniel of earlier Hebrew Scriptures (Daniel 2:48). The same word is given as sorcerer and sorcery when describing “Elymas the sorcerer” in Acts 13:6–11, and Simon Magus, considered a heretic by the early Church, in Acts 8:9–13. Several translations refer to the men outright as astrologers at Matthew Chapter 2, including New English Bible (1961); Phillips New Testament in Modern English (J.B.Phillips, 1972); Twentieth Century New Testament (1904 revised edition); Amplified Bible (1958-New Testament); An American Translation (1935, Goodspeed); and The Living Bible (K. Taylor, 1962-New Testament).
Although the Magi are commonly referred to as “kings,” there is nothing in the account from the Gospel of Matthew that implies that they were rulers of any kind. The identification of the Magi as kings is linked to Old Testament prophecies that describe the Messiah being worshipped by kings in Isaiah 60:3, Psalm 68:29, and Psalm 72:10, which reads, “Yea, all kings shall fall down before him: all nations serve him.” Early readers reinterpreted Matthew in light of these prophecies and elevated the Magi to kings. By AD 500 all commentators adopted the prevalent tradition that the three were kings. Later Christian interpretation stressed the adoration of the Magi and shepherds as the first recognition by the people of the earth of Christ as the Redeemer, but the reformer John Calvin was vehemently opposed to referring to the Magi as kings. He once wrote: “But the most ridiculous contrivance of the Papists on this subject is, that those men were kings… Beyond all doubt, they have been stupefied by a righteous judgment of God, that all might laugh at [their] gross ignorance.”
The New Testament does not give the names of the Magi. However, traditions and legends identify a variety of different names for them. In the Western Christian church, they have all been regarded as saints and are commonly known as:
- Melchior (/ˈmɛlkiˌɔːr/; also Melichior), a Persian scholar;
- Caspar (/ˈkæspər/ or /ˈkæspɑːr/; also Gaspar, Jaspar, Jaspas, Gathaspa, and other variations);
- Balthazar (/ˈbælθəˌzɑːr/ or /bælˈθæzər/; also Balthasar, Balthassar, and Bithisarea), a Babylonian scholar.
Encyclopædia Britannica states: “according to Western church tradition, Balthasar is often represented as a king of Arabia, Melchior as a king of Persia, and Gaspar as a king of India.” These names apparently derive from a Greek manuscript probably composed in Alexandria around 500, and which has been translated into Latin with the title Excerpta Latina Barbari. Another Greek document from the 8th century, of presumed Irish origin and translated into Latin with the title Collectanea et Flores, continues the tradition of three kings and their names and gives additional details.
One candidate for the origin of the name Caspar appears in the Acts of Thomas as Gondophares (21 – c. AD 47), i.e., Gudapharasa (from which “Caspar” might derive as corruption of “Gaspar”). This Gondophares declared independence from the Arsacids to become the first Indo-Parthian king, and he was allegedly visited by Thomas the Apostle. According to Ernst Herzfeld, his name is perpetuated in the name of the Afghan city Kandahar, which he is said to have founded under the name Gundopharron.
In the Eastern churches, Ethiopian Christianity, for instance, has Hor, Karsudan, and Basanater, while the Armenian Catholics have Kagpha, Badadakharida and Badadilma. Many Chinese Christians believe that one of the magi came from China.
Country of origin and journey
The phrase “from the east” (ἀπὸ ἀνατολῶν, apo anatolon), more literally “from the rising [of the sun]”, is the only information Matthew provides about the region from which they came. The Parthian Empire, centered in Persia, occupied virtually all of the land east of Judea and Syria (except for the deserts of Arabia to the southeast). Though the empire was tolerant of other religions, its dominant religion was Zoroastrianism, with its priestly magos class.
Although Matthew’s account does not explicitly cite the motivation for their journey (other than seeing the star in the east, which they took to be the star of the King of the Jews), the Syriac Infancy Gospel provides some clarity by stating explicitly in the third chapter that they were pursuing a prophecy from their prophet, Zoradascht (Zoroaster).
There is an Armenian tradition identifying the “Magi of Bethlehem” as Balthasar of Arabia, Melchior of Persia, and Gaspar of India. Historian John of Hildesheim relates a tradition in the ancient silk road city of Taxila (near Islamabad in Pakistan) that one of the Magi passed through the city on the way to Bethlehem.
Sebastian Brock, a historian of Christianity, has said: “It was no doubt among converts from Zoroastrianism that… certain legends were developed around the Magi of the Gospels”. And Anders Hultgård concluded that the Gospel story of the Magi was influenced by an Iranian legend concerning magi and a star, which was connected with Persian beliefs in the rise of a star predicting the birth of a ruler and with myths describing the manifestation of a divine figure in fire and light.
A model for the homage of the Magi might have been provided, it has been suggested, by the journey to Rome of King Tiridates I of Armenia, with his magi, to pay homage to the Emperor Nero, which took place in 66 AD, a few years before the date assigned to the composition of the Gospel of Matthew.
There was a tradition that the Central Asian Naimans and their Christian relatives, the Keraites, were descended from the biblical Magi. This heritage passed to the Mongol dynasty of Genghis Khan when Sorghaghtani, niece of the Keraite ruler Toghrul, married Tolui, the youngest son of Genghis, and became the mother of Möngke Khan and his younger brother and successor, Kublai Khan. Toghrul became identified with the legendary Central Asian Christian king, Prester John, whose Mongol descendants were sought as allies against the Muslims by contemporary European monarchs and popes. Sempad the Constable, elder brother of King Hetoum I of Cilician Armenia, visited the Mongol court in Karakorum in 1247–1250 and in 1254. He wrote a letter to Henry I King of Cyprus and Queen Stephanie (Sempad’s sister) from Samarkand in 1243, in which he said: “Tanchat [Tangut, or Western Xia], which is the land from whence came the Three Kings to Bethlehem to worship the Lord Jesus which was born. And know that the power of Christ has been, and is, so great, that the people of that land are Christians; and the whole land of Chata [Khitai, or Kara-Khitai] believes those Three Kings. I have myself been in their churches and have seen pictures of Jesus Christ and the Three Kings, one offering gold, the second frankincense, and the third myrrh. And it is through those Three Kings that they believe in Christ, and that the Chan and his people have now become Christians”. The legendary Christian ruler of Central Asia, Prester John was reportedly a descendant of one of the Magi.
The Magi are described as “falling down”, “kneeling” or “bowing” in the worship of Jesus. This gesture, together with Luke’s birth narrative, had an important effect on Christian religious practices. They were indicative of great respect, and typically used when venerating a king. While prostration is now rarely practised in the West it is still relatively common in the Eastern Churches, especially during Lent. Kneeling has remained an important element of Christian worship to this day.
Traditional identities and symbolism
Apart from their names, the three Magi developed distinct characteristics in Christian tradition, so that between them they represented the three ages of (adult) man, three geographical and cultural areas, and sometimes other things. In one tradition, reflected in art by the 14th century (for example in the Arena Chapel by Giotto in 1305) Caspar is old, normally with a white beard, and gives the gold; he is “King of Tarsus, land of merchants” on the Mediterranean coast of modern Turkey, and is first in line to kneel to Christ. Melchior is middle-aged, giving frankincense from Arabia, and Balthazar is a young man, very often and increasingly black-skinned, with myrrh from Saba (modern south Yemen). Their ages were often given as 60, 40 and 20 respectively, and their geographical origins were rather variable, with Balthazar increasingly coming from Ethiopia or other parts of Africa, and being represented accordingly. Balthazar’s blackness has been the subject of considerable recent scholarly attention; in art it is found mostly in northern Europe, beginning from the 12th century, and becoming very common in the north by the 15th. The subject of which king is which and who brought which gift is not without some variation depending on the tradition. The gift of gold is sometimes associated with Melchior as well and in some traditions, Melchior is the old man of the three Magi.
Three gifts are explicitly identified in Matthew: gold, frankincense, and myrrh, in Koine Greek: chrysós (χρυσός), líbanos (λίβανος) and smýrna (σμύρνα). Many different theories of the meaning and symbolism of the gifts have been brought forward. While gold is fairly obviously explained, frankincense, and particularly myrrh, are much more obscure. See the previous section for who gave which.
The theories generally break down into two groups:
- All three gifts are ordinary offerings and gifts given to a king. Myrrh being commonly used as an anointing oil, frankincense as a perfume, and gold as a valuable.
- The three gifts had a spiritual meaning: gold as a symbol of kingship on earth, frankincense (an incense) as a symbol of deity, and myrrh (an embalming oil) as a symbol of death.
- This dates back to Origen in Contra Celsum: “gold, as to a king; myrrh, as to one who was mortal; and incense, as to a God.”
- These interpretations are alluded to in the verses of the popular carol “We Three Kings” in which the magi describe their gifts. The last verse includes a summary of the interpretation: “Glorious now behold Him arise/King and God and sacrifice.”
- Sometimes this is described more generally as gold symbolizing virtue, frankincense symbolizing prayer, and myrrh symbolizing suffering.
Myrrh was used as an embalming ointment and as a penitential incense in funerals and cremations until the 15th century. The “holy oil” traditionally used by the Eastern Orthodox Church for performing the sacraments of chrismation and unction is traditionally scented with myrrh, and receiving either of these sacraments is commonly referred to as “receiving the myrrh”. The picture of the Magi on the 7th-century Franks Casket shows the third visitor – he who brings myrrh – with a valknut over his back, a pagan symbol referring to Death.
The Syrian King Seleucus I Nicator is recorded to have offered gold, frankincense and myrrh (among other items) to Apollo in his temple at Didyma near Miletus in 288/7 BC, and this may have been the precedent for the mention of these three gifts in Gospel of Matthew (2:11). It was these three gifts, it is thought, which were the chief cause for the number of the Magi becoming fixed eventually at three.
This episode can be linked to Isaiah 60 and to Psalm 72, which report gifts being given by kings, and this has played a central role in the perception of the Magi as kings, rather than as astronomer-priests. In a hymn of the late 4th-century hispanic poet Prudentius, the three gifts have already gained their medieval interpretation as prophetic emblems of Jesus’ identity, familiar in the carol “We Three Kings” by John Henry Hopkins, Jr., 1857.
John Chrysostom suggested that the gifts were fit to be given not just to a king but to God, and contrasted them with the Jews’ traditional offerings of sheep and calves, and accordingly Chrysostom asserts that the Magi worshiped Jesus as God.
What subsequently happened to these gifts is never mentioned in the scripture, but several traditions have developed. One story has the gold being stolen by the two thieves who were later crucified alongside Jesus. Another tale has it being entrusted to and then misappropriated by Judas. One tradition suggests that Joseph and Mary used the gold to finance their travels when they fled Bethlehem after an angel had warned, in a dream, about King Herod’s plan to kill Jesus. And another story proposes the theory that the myrrh given to them at Jesus’ birth was used to anoint Jesus’ body after his crucifixion.
There was a 15th-century golden case purportedly containing the Gift of the Magi housed in the Monastery of St. Paul of Mount Athos. It was donated to the monastery in the 15th century by Mara Branković, daughter of the King of Serbia Đurađ Branković, wife to the Ottoman Sultan Murat II and godmother to Mehmet II the Conqueror (of Constantinople). After the Athens earthquake of September 7, 1999 they were temporarily displayed in Athens in order to strengthen faith and raise money for earthquake victims. The relics were displayed in Ukraine and Belarus in Christmas of 2014, and thus left Greece for the first time since the 15th century.
Christian Scriptures record nothing about the biblical Magi after reporting their going back to their own country (Matthew 2:12 uses the feminine singular noun, χώραν, noting one country, territory or region of origin). Two separate traditions have surfaced claiming that they were so moved by their encounter with Jesus that they either became Christians on their own or were quick to convert fully upon later encountering an Apostle of Jesus. The traditions claim that they were so strong in their beliefs that they willingly embraced martyrdom.
Chronicon of Dexter
One tradition gained popularity in Spain during the 17th century; it was found in a work called the Chronicon of Dexter. The work was ascribed to Flavius Lucius Dexter the bishop of Barcelona, under Theodosius the Great. The tradition appears in the form of a simple martyrology reading, “In Arabia Felix, in the city of Sessania of the Adrumeti, the martyrdom of the holy kings, the three Magi, Gaspar, Balthassar, and Melchior who adored Christ.” First appearing in 1610, the Chronicon of Dexter was immensely popular along with the traditions it contained throughout the 17th century. Later, this was all brought into question when historians and the Catholic hierarchy in Rome declared the work a pious forgery.
Relics at Cologne
A competing tradition asserts that the biblical Magi “were martyred for the faith, and that their bodies were first venerated at Constantinople; thence they were transferred to Milan in 344. It is certain that when Frederick I, Holy Roman Emperor (Barbarossa) imposed his authority on Milan, the relics there were transferred to Cologne Cathedral, housed in the Shrine of the Three Kings, and are venerated there today.” The Milanese treated the fragments of masonry from their now-empty tomb as secondary relics and these were widely distributed around the region, including southern France, accounting for the frequency with which the Magi appear on chasse reliquaries in Limoges enamel.
There are several traditions on where the remains of the Magi are located, although none of the traditions is considered as an established fact or even as particularly likely by secular history. Marco Polo claimed that he was shown the three tombs of the Magi at Saveh south of Tehran in the 1270s:
In Persia is the city of Saba, from which the Three Magi set out when they went to worship Jesus Christ; and in this city they are buried, in three very large and beautiful monuments, side by side. And above them there is a square building, carefully kept. The bodies are still entire, with the hair and beard remaining.
Paul William Roberts provides some modern-day corroboration of this possibility in his book Journey of the Magi.
A Shrine of the Three Kings at Cologne Cathedral, according to tradition, contains the bones of the Three Wise Men. Reputedly they were first discovered by Saint Helena on her famous pilgrimage to Palestine and the Holy Lands. She took the remains to the church of Hagia Sophia in Constantinople; they were later moved to Milan (some sources say by the city’s bishop, Eustorgius I), before being sent to their current resting place by the Holy Roman Emperor Frederick I in 1164. The Milanese celebrate their part in the tradition by holding a medieval costume parade every 6 January.
A version of the detailed elaboration familiar to us is laid out by the 14th-century cleric John of Hildesheim‘s Historia Trium Regum (“History of the Three Kings”). In accounting for the presence in Cologne of their mummified relics, he begins with the journey of Helena, the mother of Constantine I to Jerusalem, where she recovered the True Cross and other relics:
Queen Helen… began to think greatly of the bodies of these three kings, and she arrayed herself, and accompanied by many attendants, went into the Land of Ind… after she had found the bodies of Melchior, Balthazar, and Gaspar, Queen Helen put them into one chest and ornamented it with great riches, and she brought them into Constantinople… and laid them in a church that is called Saint Sophia.
The visit of the Magi is commemorated in most Western Christian churches by the observance of Epiphany, 6 January, which also serves as the feast of the three as saints. The Eastern Orthodox celebrate the visit of the Magi on 25 December.
Qur’an omits Matthew’s episode of the Magi. However, the Persian Muslim encyclopaedist al-Tabari, writing in the 9th century, gives the familiar symbolism of the gifts of the Magi. Al-Tabari gave his source for the information to be the later 7th century Perso-Yemenite writer Wahb ibn Munabbih.
Holidays celebrating the arrival of the Magi traditionally recognise a distinction between the date of their arrival and the date of Jesus’ birth. The account given in the Gospel of Matthew does not state that they were present on the night of the birth; in the Gospel of Luke, Joseph and Mary remain in Bethlehem until it is time for Jesus’ dedication, in Jerusalem, and then return to their home in Nazareth.
Western Christianity celebrates the Magi on the day of Epiphany, January 6, the day immediately following the twelve days of Christmas, particularly in the Spanish-speaking parts of the world. In these areas, the Three Kings (los Reyes Magos de Oriente, Los Tres Reyes Magos or simply Los Reyes Magos) receive letters from children and so bring them gifts on the night before Epiphany. In Spain, each one of the Magi is supposed to represent one different continent, Europe (Melchior), Asia (Caspar) and Africa (Balthasar). According to the tradition, the Magi come from the Orient on their camels to visit the houses of all the children, much like Sinterklaas and Santa Claus with his reindeer elsewhere, they visit everyone in one night. In some areas, children prepare a drink for each of the Magi. It is also traditional to prepare food and drink for the camels, because this is the only night of the year when they eat.
In Spain, Argentina, Mexico, Paraguay and Uruguay, there is a long tradition for having the children receive presents by the three “Reyes Magos” on the night of January 5 (Epiphany Eve) or morning of January 6. Almost every Spanish city or town organises cabalgatas in the evening, in which the kings and their servants parade and throw sweets to the children (and parents) in attendance. The cavalcade of the three kings in Alcoy claims to be the oldest in the world, having started in 1886. The Mystery Play of the Three Magic Kings is also presented on Epiphany Eve. There is also a “Roscón” (Spain) or “Rosca de Reyes” (Mexico) as explained below.
In the Philippines, beliefs concerning the Three Kings (Filipino: Tatlóng Haring Mago, lit. “Three Magi Kings”; shortened to Tatlóng Harì or Spanish Tres Reyes) follows Hispanic influence, with the Feast of the Epiphany considered by many Filipinos as the traditional end of their Christmas season. The tradition of the Three Kings’ cabalgada is today done only in some areas, such as the old city of Intramuros in Manila, and the island of Marinduque. Another dying custom is children leaving shoes out on Epiphany Eve, so that they may receive sweets and money from the Three Kings. With the arrival of American culture in the early 20th century, the Three Kings as gift-givers have been largely replaced in urban areas by Santa Claus, and they only survive in the greeting “Happy Three Kings!” and the surname Tatlóngharì. The Three Kings are especially revered in Gapan, Nueva Ecija, where they are enshrined as patron saints in the National Shrine of Virgen La Divina Pastora.
In Paraguay, Puerto Rico and the Dominican Republic, children cut grass or greenery on January 5 and put it in a box under their bed for the Kings’ camels. Children receive gifts on January 6, which is called Día de Reyes, and is traditionally the day in which the Magi arrived bearing gifts for the Christ child. Christmas starts in December and ends in January after Epiphany, although in Puerto Rico there are eight more days of celebration (las octavitas).
Campaign for a real black Balthazar in Spain
A tradition in Poland and German-speaking Catholic areas is the writing of the three kings’ initials (C+M+B or C M B, or K+M+B in those areas where Caspar is spelled Kaspar) above the main door of Catholic homes in chalk. This is a new year’s blessing for the occupants and the initials also are believed to also stand for “Christus mansionem benedicat” (“May/Let Christ Bless This House”). Depending on the city or town, this will be happen sometime between Christmas and the Epiphany, with most municipalities celebrating closer to the Epiphany. Also in Catholic parts of the German-speaking world, these markings are made by the Sternsinger (literally, “star singers“) – a group of children dressed up as the magi. The Sternsinger carry a star representing the one followed by the biblical magi and sing Christmas carols as they go door to door, such as “Stern über Bethlehem“. An adult chaperones the group but stays in the background of the performance. After singing, the children write the three kings’ initials on the door frame in exchange for charitable donations. Each year, German and Austrian dioceses pick one charity towards which all Sternsinger donations nationwide will be contributed. Traditionally, one child in the Sternsinger group is said to represent Baltasar from Africa and so, that child typically wears blackface makeup. Many Germans do not consider this to be racist because it is not intended to be a negative portrayal of a black person, but rather, a “realistic” or “traditional” portrayal of one. The dialogue surrounding the politics of traditions involving blackface is not as developed as in Spain or the Netherlands. In the past, photographs of German politicians together with children in blackface have caused a stir in English-language press. Moreover, Afro-Germans have written that this use of blackface is a missed opportunity to be truly inclusive of Afro-Germans in German-speaking communities and contribute to the equation of “blackness” with “foreignness” and “otherness” in German culture.
In 2010 the day of Epiphany, January 6, was made a holiday in Poland and thus a pre-war tradition was revived. Since 2011, celebrations with biblical costuming have taken place throughout the country. For example, in Warsaw there are processions from Plac Zamkowy down Krakowskie Przedmieście to Plac Piłsudskiego.
Roscón de Reyes
In Spain and Portugal, a ring-shaped cake (in Portuguese: bolo-rei) contains both a small figurine of one of the Magi (or another surprise depending on the region) and a dry broad bean. The one who gets the figurine is “crowned” (with a crown made of cardboard or paper), but whoever gets the bean has to pay the value of the cake to the person who originally bought it. In Mexico they also have the same ring-shaped cake Rosca de Reyes (Kings Bagel or Thread) with figurines inside it. Whoever gets a figurine is supposed to organize and be the host of the family celebration for the Candelaria feast on February 2.
In France and Belgium, a cake containing a small figure of the baby Jesus, known as the “broad bean”, is shared within the family. Whoever gets the bean is crowned king for the remainder of the holiday and wears a cardboard crown purchased with the cake. A similar practice is common in many areas of Switzerland, but the figurine is a miniature king. The practice is known as tirer les Rois (Drawing the Kings). A queen is sometimes also chosen.
In New Orleans, Louisiana, parts of southern Texas, and surrounding regions, a similar ring-shaped cake known as a “King Cake” traditionally becomes available in bakeries from Epiphany to Mardi Gras. The baby Jesus figurine is inserted into the cake from underneath, and the person who gets the slice with the figurine is expected to buy or bake the next King Cake. There is wide variation among the types of pastry that may be called a King Cake, but most are a baked cinnamon-flavoured twisted dough with thin frosting and additional sugar on top in the traditional Mardi Gras colours of gold, green and purple. To prevent accidental injury or choking, the baby Jesus figurine is frequently not inserted into the cake at the bakery, but included in the packaging for optional use by the buyer to insert it themselves. Mardi Gras-style beads and doubloons may be included as well.
The Magi most frequently appear in European art in the Adoration of the Magi; less often in the Journey of the Magi has been a popular subject in art, and topos, and other scenes such as the Magi before Herod and the Dream of the Magi also appear in the Middle Ages. In Byzantine art they are depicted as Persians, wearing trousers and phrygian caps. Crowns appear from the 10th century. Despite being saints, they are very often shown without halos, perhaps to avoid distracting attention from either their crowns or the halos of the Holy Family. Sometimes only the lead king, kneeling to Christ, has a halo the two others lack, probably indicating that the two behind had not yet performed the act of worship that would ensure their status as saints. Medieval artists also allegorised the theme to represent the three ages of man. Beginning in the 12th century, and very often by the 15th, the Kings also represent the three parts of the known (pre-Columbian) world in Western art, especially in Northern Europe. Balthasar is thus represented as a young African or Moor, and Caspar may be depicted with distinctly Oriental features.
An early Anglo-Saxon depiction survives on the Franks Casket (early 7th century, whalebone carving), the only Christian scene, which is combined with pagan and classical imagery. In its composition it follows the oriental style, which renders a courtly scene, with the Virgin and Christ facing the spectator, while the Magi devoutly approach from the (left) side. Even amongst non-Christians who had heard of the Christian story of the Magi, the motif was quite popular, since the Magi had endured a long journey and were generous. Instead of an angel, the picture places a swan-like bird, perhaps interpretable as the hero’s fylgja (a protecting spirit, and shapeshifter).
Austrian artist Gottfried Helnwein depicted a more controversial tableau in his painting, Epiphany I: Adoration of the Magi (1996). Intended to represent the “many connections between the Third Reich and the Christian churches in Austria and Germany”, Nazi officers in uniform stand around an Aryan Madonna. The Christ toddler who stands on Mary’s lap resembles Adolf Hitler.
Some Christmas carols refer to the biblical Magi or Three Kings, especially hymns meant to be sung by the star singers, such as “Stern über Bethlehem“. Peter Cornelius composed a song cycle Weihnachtslieder, Op. 8 which contains a song “Die Könige” (The Kings), which became popular in an English choral arrangement, “The Three Kings“. Balthazar, Caspar, and Melchior are also featured in Gian Carlo Menotti‘s Amahl and the Night Visitors.
- Holman Illustrated Bible Dictionary. Nashville, Tennessee: Holman Bible Publishers. 2003. p. 1066. ISBN 0-8054-2836-4.
- Matthew 2:1-2
- Geza Vermes, The Nativity: History and Legend, London, Penguin, 2006, p. 22
- Metzger, 24 
- “Magi”. Encyclopædia Britannica. Online Edition.
- s.v. magi. Oxford English Dictionary (Third ed.). April 1910.
- Schiller, 114
- “Matthew 2”. Bible Gateway.
- Schiller, I, 96; The New Testament by Bart D. Ehrman 1999 ISBN 0-19-512639-4 p. 109
- Oxford English Dictionary, Third edition, April 2010, s.v. magus
- Mary Boyce, A History of Zoroastrianism: The Early Period (Brill, 1989, 2nd ed.), vol. 1, pp. 10–11 online; Mary Boyce, Zoroastrians: their religious beliefs and practices (Routledge, 2001, 2nd ed.), p. 48 online; Linda Murray, The Oxford Companion to Christian Art and Architecture (Oxford University Press, 1996), p. 293; Stephen Mitchell, A History of the Later Roman Empire, AD 284–641: The Transformation of the Ancient World (Wiley–Blackwell, 2007), p. 387 online.
- Psalm 72:11 (King James Version)
- “Magi”. Encyclopædia Britannica.
- s.v. magi. Oxford English Dictionary (Third ed.). April 1910.
- Drum, Walter. “Magi.” The Catholic Encyclopedia. Vol. 9. New York: Robert Appleton Company, 1910. 24 Dec. 2016.
- Ashby, Chad. “Magi, Wise Men, or Kings? It’s Complicated.” Christianity Today, December 16, 2016.
- Calvin, John. Calvin’s Commentaries, Vol. 31: Matthew, Mark and Luke, Part I, tr. by John King. Retrieved 2010-05-15. Quote from Commentary on Matthew 2:1–6
- See Metzger, 23–29 for a lengthy account
- “Melchior”. Collins Dictionary. n.d. Retrieved 25 September 2014.
- Excerpta Latina Barbari, page 51B: “At that time in the reign of Augustus, on 1st January the Magi brought him gifts and worshipped him. The names of the Magi were Bithisarea, Melichior and Gathaspa.”.
- “Caspar or Gaspar”. Collins Dictionary. n.d. Retrieved 25 September 2014.
- Hugo Kehrer (1908), Vol. I, p. 70 Online version Kehrer’s commentary: “Die Form Jaspar stammt aus Frankreich. Sie findet sich im niederrheinisch-kölnischen Dialekt und im Englischen. Note: O. Baist page 455; J.P.Migne; Dictionnaire des apocryphes, Paris 1856, vol I, p. 1023. … So in La Vie de St. Gilles; Li Roumans de Berte: Melcior, Jaspar, Baltazar; Rymbybel des Jakob von Märlant: Balthasar, Melchyor, Jaspas; ein altenglisches Gedicht des dreizehnten oder vierzehnten Jahrhunderts (13th century!!) Note: C.Horstmann, Altenglische Legenden, Paderborn 1875, p. 95; … La Vie des trois Roys Jaspar Melchior et Balthasar, Paris 1498”–>]
- “Balthazar”. Collins Dictionary. n.d. Retrieved 25 September 2014.
- “Magi (biblical figures) – Encyclopædia Britannica”. Britannica.com. Retrieved 2013-07-04.
- Hugo Kehrer (1908), Die Heiligen Drei Könige in Literatur und Kunst (reprinted in 1976). Vol. I, p. 66. Online version. Quote from the Latin chronicle: primus fuisse dicitur Melchior, senex et canus, barba prolixa et capillis, tunica hyacinthina, sagoque mileno, et calceamentis hyacinthino et albo mixto opere, pro mitrario variae compositionis indutus: aurum obtulit regi Domino. (“the first [magus], named Melchior, was an old white-haired man, with a full beard and hair, […]: the king gave gold to our Lord.”) Secundum, nomine Caspar, juvenis imberbis, rubicundus, mylenica tunica, sago rubeo, calceamentis hyacinthinis vestitus: thure quasi Deo oblatione digna, Deum honorabat. (“The second, with name Caspar, a beardless boy, [… gave incense].”) Tertius, fuscus, integre barbatus, Balthasar nomine, habens tunicam rubeam, albo vario, calceamentis inimicis amicus: per myrrham filium hominis moriturum professus est. (“The third one, dark-haired, with a full beard, named Balthasar, [… gave myrhh].”) Omnia autem vestimenta eorum Syriaca sunt.(“The clothes of all [three] were Syrian-style.”)
- Collectanea et Flores in Patrologia Latina. XCIV, page 541(D) Online version
- Ernst Herzfeld, Archaeological History of Iran, London, Oxford University Press for the British Academy, 1935, p. 63.
- Witold Witakowski, “The Magi in Syriac Tradition”, in George A. Kiraz (ed.), Malphono w-Rabo d-Malphone: Studies in Honor of Sebastian P. Brock, Piscataway (NJ), Gorgias Press, 2008, pp. 809–844.
- Acta Sanctorum, May, I, 1780.
- Concerning The Magi And Their Names.
- Hattaway, Paul; Brother Yun; Yongze, Peter Xu; and Wang, Enoch. Back to Jerusalem. (Authentic Publishing, 2003). retrieved May 2007
- Axworthy, Michael (2008). A History of Iran. Basic Books. pp. 31–43.
- Hone, William (1890 (4th edit); 1820 (1st edition)). “The Apocryphal Books of the New Testament“. Archive.org. Gebbie & Co., Publishers, Philadelphia. See: Retrieved 26 January 2017.
- Nersessian, Vrej (2001). The Bible in the Armenian Tradition. Getty. ISBN 978-0-89236-640-8.[page needed]
- Historia Trium Regum (History of the Three Kings) by John of Hildesheim (1364–1375)[specify]
- Brock, Sebastian (1982). “Christians in the Sasanian Empire: A Case of Divided Loyalties”. In Mews, Stuart (ed.). Religion and National Identity. Studies in Church History, 18. Oxford: Blackwell. pp. 1–19. ISBN 978-0-631-18060-9.
- Ugo Monneret de Villard, Le Leggende orientali sui Magi evangelici, Citta del Vaticano, Biblioteca apostolica vaticana, 1952.[page needed]
- Hultgård, Anders (1998). “The Magi and the Star—the Persian Background in Texts and Iconography”. In Schalk, Peter; Stausberg, Michael (eds.). ‘Being Religious and Living through the Eyes’: Studies in Religious Iconography and Iconology: A Celebratory Publication in Honour of Professor Jan Bergman. Acta Universitatis Upsaliensis: Historia Religionum, 14. Uppsala, Almqvist & Wiksell International. pp. 215–25. ISBN 978-91-554-4199-9.
- A. Dietrich, “Die Weisen aus dem Morgenlande”, Zeitschrift für die Neutestamentliche Wissenschaft, Bd. III, 1902, p. 1 14; cited in J. Duchesne-Guillemin, “Die Drei Weisen aus dem Morgenlande und die Anbetung der Zeit”, Antaios, Vol. VII, 1965, pp. 234–252, 245; cited in Mary Boyce and Frantz Genet, A History of Zoroastrianism, Leiden, Brill, 1991, p. 453, n. 449.
- Herzfeld, Ernst (1935). Archaeological History of Iran. Schweich Lectures of the British Academy. London: Oxford University Press. pp. 65–6. OCLC 651983281.
- In regno Tarsae sunt tres provinciae, quarum dominatores se reges faciunt appellari. Homines illius patriae nominant Iogour. Semper idola coluerunt, et adhuc colunt omnes, praeter decem cognationes illorum regum, qui per demonstrationum stellae venerunt adorare nativitatem in Bethlehem Judae. Et adhuc multi magni et nobiles inveniunt inter Tartaros de cognatione illa, qui tenent firmiter fidem Christi. (In the kingdom of Tarsis there are three provinces, whose rulers have called themselves kings. the men of that country are called Uighours. They always worshipped idols, and they all still worship them except for the ten families of those Kings who from the appearance of the Star came to adore the Nativity in Bethlehem of Judah. And there are still many of the great and noble of those families found among the Tartars who hold firmly to the faith of Christ): Wesley Roberton Long (ed.), La flor de las ystorias de Orient by Hethum prince of Khorghos, Chicago, The University of Chicago Press, 1934, pp. 53, 111, 115; cited in Ugo Monneret de Villard,Le Leggende orientali sui Magi evangelici, Citta del Vaticano, Biblioteca apostolica vaticana, 1952, p. 161. Hayton, Haithoni Armeni ordinis Praemonstratenis de Tartaris liber, Simon Grynaeus Johannes Huttichius, Novus orbis regionum ac insularum veteribus incognitarum, Basel, 1532, caput ii, De Regno Tarsae, p. 420 “The people of these countrees be named Iobgontans [Uighurs], and at all tymes they haue been idolaters, and so they contynue to this present day, save the nacion or kynred of those thre kynges which came to worshyp Our Lorde Ihesu Chryst at his natiuyte by demonstracyon of the sterre. And the linage of the same thre kynges be yet vnto this day great lordes about the lande of Tartary, which ferme and stedfastly beleue in the fayth of Christ”: Hetoum, A Lytell Cronycle: Richard Pynson’s Translation (c. 1520) of La Fleur des Histoires de la Terre d’Orient, edited by Glenn Burger, Toronto, University of Toronto Press, 1988, Of the realme of Tharsey, p. 8, lines 29–38.
- Friedrich Zarncke, “Der Priester Johannes”, Abhandlungen der philologisch-historischen Classe der Koeniglichen Sachsischen Gesellschaft der Wissenschaften, Leipzig, Band VII, Heft 8, 1879, S.826–1028; Band I, Heft 8, 1883, S. 1–186), re-published in one volume by G. Olms, Hildesheim, 1980.
- Letter of Sempad the Constable to the King and Queen of Cyprus, 1243, in Henry Yule, Cathay and the Way Thither, Oxford, Hakluyt society, 1866, Vol.I, pp.cxxvii, 262-3.
- Fertur enim iste de antiqua progenie illorum, quorum in Evangelio mentio fit, esse Magorum, eisdemque, quibus et isti, gentibus imperans, tanta gloria et habundancia frui, ut non nisi sceptro smaragdino uti dicatur (It is reported that he is the descendant of those Magi of old who are mentioned in the Gospel, and to rule over the same nations as they did, enjoying such glory and prosperity that he uses no sceptre but one of emerald). Otto von Freising, Historia de Duabus Civitatibus, 1146, in Friedrich Zarncke, Der Priester Johannes, Leipzig, Hirzel, 1879 (repr. Georg Olms Verlag, Hildesheim and New York, 1980, p. 848; Adolf Hofmeister, Ottonis Episcopi Frisingensis Chronica; sive, Historia de Duabus Civitatibus, Hannover. 1912, p. 366.
- “Matthew 2; – Passage Lookup – New International Version – UK”. BibleGateway.com. Retrieved 2010-06-28.
- Penny, 401
- Schiller, I, 113
- Origen, Contra Celsum I.60.
- “Franks Casket – F – panel (Front) – Pictures: The Magi”.
- Page, Sophie,”Magic In Medieval Manuscripts“. University of Toronto Press, 2004. 64 pages. ISBN 0-8020-3797-6, p. 18.
- Gustav-Adolf Schoener and Shane Denson [Translator], “Astrology: Between Religion and the Empirical“.
- “Frankincense: festive pharmacognosy Archived 2007-06-15 at the Wayback Machine“. Pharmaceutical journal. Vol 271, 2003. pharmj.com.
- Greek inscription RC 5 (OGIS 214) – English translation. This inscription was in the past erroneously dated to about 243 B.C.
- August Friedrich von Pauly et al., Realencyclopädie der Classischen Altertumswissenschaft, Vol. XVI, 1, Stuttgart, 1933, col.1145; Leonardo Olschki, “The Wise Men of the East in Oriental Traditions”, Semitic and Oriental Studies, University of California Publications in Semitic Philology, Vol.11, 1951, pp. 375 395, p. 380, n. 46; cited in Mary Boyce and Frantz Genet, A History of Zoroastrianism, Leiden, Brill, 1991, p. 450, n. 438.
- Lambert, John Chisholm, in James Hastings (ed.) A Dictionary of Christ and the Gospels. Page 100.
- “Gifts of the Magi delivered to Minsk for worship”. ITAR-TASS. 17 January 2014. Retrieved 2014-01-17.
- Andrew Edward Breen (February 1, 1908). A Harmonized Exposition of the Four Gospels, Volume 1. Rochester, New York.
- R. R. Madden, M.D. (1864). “On certain Literary Frauds and Forgeries in Spain And Italy”. Proceedings of the Royal Irish Academy, Vol 8. Dublin.
- Gauthier M-M. and François G., Émaux méridionaux: Catalogue international de l’oeuvre de Limoges – Tome I: Epoque romane, p. 11, Paris 1987
- Journey of the Magi, Paul William Roberts, (2006) Tauris Parke Paperbacks, pgs 27-38
- “Sant’ Eustorgio I di Milano”. Santiebeati.it. 2001-09-09. Retrieved 2010-06-28.
- “We, three kings of Orient were”. Saudiaramcoworld.com. Archived from the original on 2010-01-13. Retrieved 2010-06-28.
- News about blackface Balthazars (in Spanish)
- Vídeo demanding true black Baltazars (in Spanish)
- “Christus Mansionem Benedicat « Catholic Sensibility”. Catholicsensibility.wordpress.com. 2006-01-05. Retrieved 2012-01-12.
- “Duden | Sternsingen | Rechtschreibung, Bedeutung, Definition” (in German). Duden.de. 2012-10-30. Retrieved 2013-12-16.
- Name bedeutet: Gott schütze sein Leben (babylon.-hebr.) (2007-03-25). “Balthasar – Ökumenisches Heiligenlexikon”. Heiligenlexikon.de. Retrieved 2013-12-16.
- “Catholic Encyclopedia: Baltasar”. Newadvent.org. Retrieved 2013-12-16.
- “Blackface! Around the World”. Black-face.com. Retrieved 2013-12-16.
- User-Kommentar von Dieter Schmeer. “Und die Sternsinger? – Leser-Kommentar – FOCUS Online” (in German). Focus.de. Archived from the original on 2013-12-03. Retrieved 2013-12-16.
- “German Chancellor Angela Merkel poses with children in blackface for Three King’s Day celebration”. NY Daily News. Retrieved 2013-12-16.
- 04 Jan 2013 (2013-01-04). “Angela Merkel pictured with blacked-up children”. Telegraph. Retrieved 2013-12-16.
- Ogdan Ücgür (2012-01-06). “Sternsinger: Schwarzes Gesicht und weisse Hände”. M-Media. Retrieved 2013-12-16.
- Trzech Króli już świętem państwowym (Three Kings already a public holidayArchived 2016-11-21 at the Wayback Machine
- “Orszak Trzech Króli | Warszawa”. Orszak.org. 2013-01-01. Archived from the original on 2013-04-15. Retrieved 2013-07-04.
- À mesa com o tradicional Bolo-rei – Uma instituição nacional Archived 2010-06-01 at the Portuguese Web Archive Matosinhos Hoje, 6 January 2010.
- Baker, Kenneth (9 August 2004). “Dark and detached, the art of Gottfried Helnwein demands a response”. San Francisco Chronicle. accessed with EBSCOHost.
- Denver Art Museum, Radar, Selections from the Collection of Vicki and Kent Logan, Gwen F. Chanzit, 2006  Archived 2008-06-09 at the Wayback Machine
- Giffords, Gloria Fraser, Sanctuaries of Earth, Stone, and Light: The Churches of Northern New Spain, 1530–1821, 2007, University of Arizona Press, ISBN 0816525897, 9780816525898, google books
- Metzger, Bruce, New Testament Studies: Philological, Versional, and Patristic, Volume 10, 1980, BRILL, ISBN 9004061630, 9789004061637.
- Penny, Nicholas, National Gallery Catalogues (new series): The Sixteenth Century Italian Paintings, Volume II, Venice 1540–1600, 2008, National Gallery Publications Ltd, ISBN 1857099133
- Schiller, Gertud, Iconography of Christian Art, Vol. I, 1971 (English trans from German), Lund Humphries, London, ISBN 0853312702
- Albright, W. F., and C. S. Mann. “Matthew.” The Anchor Bible Series. New York: Doubleday & Company, 1971.
- Becker, Alfred: Franks Casket. Zu den Bildern und Inschriften des Runenkästchens von Auzon (Regensburg, 1973) pp. 125–142, Ikonographie der Magierbilder, Inschriften.
- Benecke, P. V. M. (1900). “Magi”. In James Hastings (ed.). A Dictionary of the Bible. III. pp. 203–206.
- Brown, Raymond E. The Birth of the Messiah: A Commentary on the Infancy Narratives in Matthew and Luke. London: G. Chapman, 1977.
- Clarke, Howard W. (2003). The Gospel of Matthew and its Readers: A Historical Introduction to the First Gospel. Bloomington: Indiana University Press.
- Chrysostom, John. “Homilies on Matthew: Homily VI”. c. 4th century.
- France, R. T. The Gospel According to Matthew: An Introduction and Commentary. Leicester: Inter-Varsity, 1985.
- Gundry, Robert H. Matthew: A Commentary on his Literary and Theological Art. Grand Rapids: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1982.
- Hegedus, Tim (2003). “The Magi and the Star in the Gospel of Matthew and Early Christian Tradition”. Laval théologique et philosophique. 59 (1): 81–95. doi:10.7202/000790ar.
- Hill, David. The Gospel of Matthew. Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1981
- Lambert, John Chisholm, A Dictionary of Christ and the Gospels. Page 97–101.
- Levine, Amy-Jill. “Matthew.” Women’s Bible Commentary. Carol A. Newsom and Sharon H. Ringe, eds. Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 1998.
- Molnar, Michael R., The Star of Bethlehem: The Legacy of the Magi. Rutgers University Press, 1999. 187 pages. ISBN 0-8135-2701-5
- Powell, Mark Allan. “The Magi as Wise Men: Re-examining a Basic Supposition.” New Testament Studies. Vol. 46, 2000.
- Schweizer, Eduard. The Good News According to Matthew. Atlanta: John Knox Press, 1975.
- Trexler, Richard C. Journey of the Magi: Meanings in History of a Christian Story. Princeton University Press, 1997.
- Watson, Richard, A Biblical and Theological Dictionary, Page 608–611.
The dull aching pain is that of infidelity in love, or something quite similar, which favor the one loved now returns. She is leaving, or sliding through his hands, and the faith of love has been broken. Despite his love, which he could not voluntarily be torn away from, he must be reconciled to its mortality as she has left him. That is the leading possibility, anyway.
Wild horses could not drag him away, but infidelity has ended the love- except for this one “touch me in the morning” scene. The “living after we die” is of course after the death of the love. His ability to make love to her one last time is paradoxically a having gotten over the pain of the love.
The freedom of the spirit, and something like friendship above love, as in Simon’s Bridge, and maybe even the bridled horse, is shown in saying “No sweeping exit,” such scenes of break-ups, or “offstage lines,” ill or half-considered things spoken off the record, could make him feel bitter or treat her unkind. The bird has been released. It is the grace of this transcendence or fulfillment of love in a forgiveness that flies wild horses.
The mystery line is of course ” I know I’v dreamed you/ A sin and a lie.” If this is one line, it would seem to mean that he has dreamed up for her a false or sinful world. But rather it seems that he recognizes that he has dreamed the one loved, and he calls this – the illusion of love- a sin and a lie.
Did he dream for her a sin and a lie when faith was broken? Or is it not rather the eidolon of love, the “phantom” of Helen that was at Troy? Does he see that the illusion of love is unjust? Is it then the taking back of the projection called anima by Jung, the seeing of the image in love, or the activation and investiture of the feminine unconscious? Neil Young writes, :
I am just a dreamer/
But you are just a dream/
You could have been anyone to me.”
Wild horses are of course the image of of the passionate or middle part of the soul, and the enterprise of love is that the human integrate the passions under him as a rider might a horse- someday.
These are the lyrics from Songmeanings.com
Childhood living is easy to do
The things you wanted I bought them for you
Graceless lady you know who I am
You know I can’t let you slide through my hands
Wild horses couldn’t drag me away
Wild, wild horses couldn’t drag me away
I watched you suffer a dull aching pain
Now you’ve decided to show me the same
No sweeping exit or offstage lines
Could make me feel bitter or treat you unkind
Wild horses couldn’t drag me away
Wild, wild horses couldn’t drag me away
I know I’ve dreamed you a sin and a lie
I have my freedom but I don’t have much time
Faith has been broken tears must be cried
Let’s do some living after we die
Wild horses couldn’t drag me away
Wild, wild horses we’ll ride them some day
Wild horses couldn’t drag me away
Wild, wild horses we’ll ride them some day
- The Earth, sky and sea, the sun, the moon and the constellations (484–89)
- “Two beautiful cities full of people”: in one a wedding and a law case are taking place (490–508); the other city is besieged by one feuding army and the shield shows an ambush and a battle (509–40).
- A field being ploughed for the third time (541–49).
- A king’s estate where the harvest is being reaped (550–60).
- A vineyard with grape pickers (561–72).
- A “herd of straight-horned cattle”; the lead bull has been attacked by a pair of savage lions which the herdsmen and their dogs are trying to beat off (573–86).
- A picture of a sheep farm (587–89).
- A dancing-floor where young men and women are dancing (590–606).
- The great stream of Ocean (607–609).
The Shield of Achilles can be read in a variety of different ways. One interpretation is that the shield represents a microcosm of civilization, in which all aspects of life are shown. The depiction of law suggests the existence of social order within one city, while feuding armies depict a darker side of humanity. The imagery of nature and the universe also reinforce the belief that the shield is a microcosm of Greek life, as it can be seen as a reflection of their perception of the world. In a poetic and descriptive way, some scholars read it as a summation of the whole of human knowledge in the Homeric era. Also, the sun and the moon are shown shining simultaneously, which some consider representative of a general understanding of the universe and awareness to the cosmological order of life  and as such, its akin to a mandala of antiquity.
The shield shows images of conflict and discord by depicting the shield’s layers as a series of contrasts – i.e. war and peace, work and festival. Wolfgang Schadewaldt, a German writer, argues that these intersecting antitheses show the basic forms of a civilized, essentially orderly life. This contrast is also seen as a way of making “us…see [war] in relation to peace.”.
One cannot but think of the ring construction of the 10 books of Plato’s Republic, and wonder about a relation to the 24 books of the Iliad, which begin in wrath and end in the mercy shown to Priam. We’d compare the shield of Athena in the Parthenon, too, but it’s all different.