The history of Nicholas presents a tantalizing riddle. There is no early documentation of the man—no writings, disciples, or major acts. Then, curiously, story fragments and rumors begin to surface like driftwood in the water. A church is built in his honor at Constantinople, and suddenly he becomes an international symbol of holiday cheer and goodwill, an absolutely essential part of the Christmas tradition. It will take extra care and caution to reconstruct the most plausible account of his life.

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The Image of an Icon

The most pervasive cultural image of Santa Claus today has nothing to do with the digital reconstruction of the bones in the Bari tomb but originated with a landmark ad campaign from Coca-Cola. In an effort to boost winter sales, attract younger consumers, and improve its image after attacks from the Women's Christian Temperance Union, the Coca-Cola Company in the early twentieth century hired artist Haddon Sundblom to paint the big man into its advertisements. From 1931 to 1964, Sundblom produced warm and richly colored Christmas scenes featuring a larger-than-life Santa posing cheerfully in various locations, always with a bottle of Coke. Thirty years of nostalgic, Norman Rockwellesque paintings plastered on billboards and in magazines fixed the modern image of the saint.6 The wide beard of white, the knobby nose, the wind-chapped cheeks, the bright eyes and grandfatherly smile, and of course, the red fur suit with white trim and black belt—this is Sundblom's Santa. Every movie or television or commercial depiction since is based in some degree on Sundblom's vision.

There is little connection between Sundblom's artwork and the oldest visual image available of St. Nicholas of Myra, which can be dated to between the mid-600s and the mid-700s.7 That image is included on a panel painting divided into four rectangular boxes (fig. 1). In the top two boxes stand St. Paul and St. Peter; in the bottom two are St. Nicholas and St. John Chrysostom. It is noteworthy that Nicholas shares space with such highly honored men and testifies to the status accorded him when the panel was created. Painted by monastic artists in either Egypt or Palestine, the icon presents a full-length view of Nicholas. His beard is long and white, complementing his full head of white hair. Unlike those of Paul and John Chrysostom, Nicholas' beard is not neatly trimmed but slightly unkempt and bushy; unlike St. Peter's curly beard, Nicholas' is straight. Circling Nicholas' head is a bright and prominent halo. His eyes are wide and fixed on the viewer, and he wears Byzantine-style priestly robes of crimson and gold. Lobate crosses can be seen on his omophorion, the traditional vestment draped around his shoulders and neck that symbolizes the lost sheep carried by the good shepherd in Jesus' parable (Luke 15:3-7). His right hand is raised in blessing, and a sacred book is positioned in his left.

This icon resides in the historic Monastery of St. Catherine at Mount Sinai, present-day Egypt.8 Its very existence is of special importance because Byzantine icons and religious art of antiquity suffered two cruel fates: first, the iconoclast movement of the eighth and ninth century eliminated most of the artwork, statues, and decorative pieces in churches, homes, and monasteries; and then, Western crusaders savagely laid waste to Constantinople and destroyed many of the remaining pieces in the Fourth Crusade of 1204.9 Fortunately, the Monastery of St. Catherine, situated in the wastelands of Egypt, stood out of reach of both fates. And, by a special donation of protection, it was spared from mistreatment and plunder by Arabs, whose armies seized the area in the seventh century. In this uniquely preserved image of St. Nicholas, we catch a very early glimpse of the man. His strong eyes speak of fearless resolve and confident authority. His long white beard shows wisdom, maturity, and gentleness. His hand of blessing represents his pastoral concern, and the Gospel book signifies his Christian orthodoxy. His priestly garb reminds us that he was a man of ministry, devoted to the worship of God and the care of God's flock.