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.
The contemporary picture of Santa Claus, however, is largely the byproduct of commercialization and advertisement. It is tied to the history of Coca-Cola, Hollywood's movie industry, Walmart's sales, shopping mall photo-ops, and the Internet. Of course, this Santa Claus image also tells an important story of American holiday culture, drawing on John Pintard's Dutch dream of the New York Historical Society, Washington Irving's Knickerbocker's History of New York, the enchanted scenery of "A Visit from St. Nicholas" ("T'was the Night Before Christmas"), the wily drawings and wood carvings of Thomas Nast, and the comical imagination of James K. Paulding. That image pulls from old and new alike, from old-world customs such as filling shoes and stockings with gifts to modern family traditions of watching animated Christmas specials on TV. Although all of these images are worth having, they do not get us any closer to the historical reality of Nicholas and shed no light on the fourth-century bishop who lived on the southern coast of what is now Turkey.
Interestingly, this subject has piqued the curiosity of more and more people in recent years. An uptick in the number of recent books and resources about the "real" St. Nicholas indicates a growing fascination with the topic. Titles include The Real Santa Claus: Legends of Saint Nicholas and The Real St. Nicholas: Tales of Generosity and Hope from Around the World.10 A recent VeggieTales animated DVD for children includes silly songs and antics not about Santa Claus but about his predecessor, Saint Nicholas (Saint Nicholas: A Story of Joyful Giving, 2009).
Unfortunately, most popular offerings on the subject of Nicholas are frustratingly uninformative. Many books have the appearance of historical work but offer little substance. They tell wonderful stories, but in the process repeat errors that are at least a thousand years old. Two examples of such problematic accounts are Joe Wheeler's 2010 Saint Nicholas (Nashville: Nelson) and William J. Bennett's 2009 The True Saint Nicholas: Why He Matters to Christmas (New York: Howard Books). Wheeler is a gifted scholar and Nicholas devotee; Bennett is the former U.S. Secretary of Education and celebrated author of The Book of Virtues. Both enrich the holiday season with heartwarming tales and fascinating nuggets of trivia. But neither presents the best historical scholarship regarding the person of Nicholas. Instead, they weave together anecdotes—some factual and some fictitious—from a potpourri of sources lifted out of any and every era.