Skip to content

By Katie Dabin on

Lil' Ol' St Nick

Whether its Santa Claus, Kris Kringle or Father Christmas, we have quite a fixed  image (soft-drink company influenced?) in our heads of what the man delivering presents down the chimney should look like. But could this be what the original ‘Santa’ really looked like…?

Wooden statue of St Nicholas, France, 1801-1900 (Image credit: Science Museum)

This rather charming tabbarded fellow in our collections is Saint Nicholas. He looks distinctly un-santa-esque because he was in fact the Bishop of Myra (now south-west Turkey) during the third century. Pictured with three children, it’s not surprising to find that Nicholas became the patron saint of young people. During his lifetime, he had a reputation for secret gift-giving, such as putting coins in the shoes of those who left them out for him. Because of the many miracles attributed to him, he was also known as Nikolaos the Wonderworker – (imagine Santa with a superhero cape!).

But where does the Santa connection fit in? In the Netherlands (and other European countries), the evening before Saint Nicholas’s feast day (on 6 December) is the primary occasion for gift-giving – which in Dutch is Sinterklaas (like saying Saint Nicholas really quickly!).

Turns out that Lil’ Ol’ St Nick is also the patron saint of sailors, unmarried women, apothecaries, perfumers and pawnbrokers. Well with all that to deal with at least now we know what else Santa gets up to for the rest of the year