The True Face of St. Nicholas

St. Nicholas has had quite a career: from bishop of a small diocese in Asia Minor to everlasting fame on Hallmark greeting cards and Coca Cola advertisements the world over.  To help us bridge the gap from St. Nicholas to the modern secular Santa, we have the excellent website of the St. Nicholas Center, whose motto is “Discovering the Truth About Santa Claus.”

The website documents the shifting faces of St. Nicholas through the ages, from Christian bishop to benevolent pipe-smoking elf to the non-judgmental commercial gift-giver of present times.  There are articles on such diverse topics as “The Knickerbocker Santa” (on the modern Santa’s origins in old New York), “Father Christmas,” and “Flemish Influence.” There are myriad artistic renderings of Nicholas, from Byzantine icons to illustrations by Thomas Nast, Norman Rockwell—and, yes, the Cola Cola company.

The familiar stories of St. Nicholas’ life are recounted: of how he saved three sisters from being sold into prostitution by gifting them each with a bag of dowry money tossed through the window (the source of his association with gift-giving); of how he rescued three young men from an unjust execution; of how he appeared miraculously to sailors caught in a storm at sea and guided them to safe harbor (hence his patronage of sailors).

One of the ironies that emerge is the fact that a figure who started as a symbol of disinterested gift-giving and charity has become, to a great degree, an emblem of consumerism.  Indeed, gift-giving and -receiving is something of a double-edged sword: on the one hand an outpouring of love and a reminder of the unmerited grace of God; on the other, the doorway to greed and many other vices, as we all know.

With all these shifting images of the man called Claus, what of the original St. Nick? Can recovering his face help us recover the original spirit of Christmas, so beclouded by modern commercialism?

In 2004, a group of forensic anthropologists—led by an Italian and an Englishwoman—set out quite literally in search of the real face of St. Nicholas.  As documented on the St. Nicholas Center website, they exhumed Nicholas’ skull, preserved in the crypt of the Basilica di San Nicola in Bari, and from it created a computer model of the saint’s head. Virtual clay was used to model a face based on the skull structure, and advanced computer graphics helped fill in the skin tone, beard, etc.  The result—the original Santa Claus, if you will—is the image that adorns the top and bottom of this page (click on the bottom image to enlarge).  A documentary film, Santa Claus: The Real Face, resulted from the project.

The reconstruction shows a middle-aged man with Mediterranean olive skin, a bald head and a flowing gray beard.  A surprise: Nicholas had a severely broken nose, perhaps acquired during his imprisonment under the Diocletian persecutions.  Not only was Nicholas roughed up, but he was apparently not afraid to be a little rough himself in defense of the Truth: legend tells that he slapped the heretical bishop Arius in the face during the Council of Nicea.  They were tough times.

Were the man in the picture to mount a throne at Macy’s he might raise some eyebrows, but not for long.  What we see here is not a jolly old elf but a kindly and serious man of the cloth who has had to fight for his beliefs and who knows deprivation and sacrifice.  If Christianity is an Incarnational religion—a religion of God becoming flesh—then this project of putting a real face on Santa Claus is a worthy project indeed.  The “real face of Santa” deserves to be known and shared.

To sum up, in the words of the St. Nicholas Center’s J. Rosenthal and C. Myers: “Santa Claus isn’t bad; St. Nicholas is just better.”

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