Recently, while doing some painting on an outside wall of my home, I had the radio on just to listen to people call in and talk with the host. One man called and complained that people pay more attention to Santa Claus during the Christmas season than to the birth of Jesus. He argued that this was proof that “we” have allowed secularism — and maybe even paganism — to creep into the Christmas tradition. The host just politely listened, thanked the caller, and then went on to the next call.

The fact is, Santa Claus is not a myth, and he wasn’t a pagan. There actually is a historical figure upon which “Santa Claus” is based.

Nicholas of Myra was a 4th-century bishop in the Catholic Church of Asia Minor. He was born on March 15, 270, in Pataya, Lycia, in what is now modern Turkey. At that time, however, the area was culturally Greek, and was politically part of the Roman Diocese of Asia. He was the only child of wealthy Greek parents who both died in an epidemic when Nicholas was young. Nicholas inherited much wealth from his parents, and was then raised by his uncle (also named Nicholas), Bishop of Patara, who trained young Nicholas for priesthood.

Nicholas was said to be deeply religious even at an early age, and he always fasted on Wednesdays and Fridays. Because of his outspoken beliefs, he was persecuted by the Romans and was imprisoned during the persecution of Diocletian.

In case you never heard of the persecution of Diocletian (I hadn’t), it was the most severe of the persecutions against Christians, simply because they were Christians during the time of the Roman Empire. It was also known as the “Great Persecution.” In 303, four emperors issued a series of dictatorial laws which essentially did away with any legal rights of Christians. The edicts demanded that Christians comply with traditional Roman “religious” practices, meaning, giving sacrifices to the various Roman gods. This persecution was severe, and was weakest in the British colonies where the Empire had the least sway. It was most severe in the Eastern provinces, where Nicholas lived.

Since Nicholas refused to worship the Roman gods, he was imprisoned and suffered hardship, hunger and cold for about five years. With Constantine’s rise to power, the persecutions came to an end in 313. Nicholas was soon released. Constantine is known for pragmatically “Christianizing” the Roman Empire, and renaming all the Mythraic and so-called “pagan” holidays so they could all now be regarded as Christian holidays.

Shortly after his return to his homeland in 317, Nicholas became the Bishop of Myra.

He was later invited to attend the First Council of Nicaea in 325, the famous council where much of the modern dogma of the Catholic Church was determined. Nicholas of Myra was one of many bishops to participate in the council at Constantine’s request. He is listed as the 151st attendee at the council. There, Nicholas was a staunch anti-Arian. Arius, from Alexandria, held that the Son of God did not always exist, but was created by the Father. Nicholas disagreed with Arius, and defended the developing orthodox Christian viewpoint. According to stories told, Nicholas got so angry at Arius that he began to duke it out with him, punching Arius in the face! Really? Proto-Santa Claus punches a fellow man of the cloth? It must have been an amazing thing to witness.

Back in his homeland, Nicholas became known as a very generous bishop. Remember, he inherited wealth from his parents, and he would sometimes give gold and other valuables to those that he heard were in need. I like to think that Nicholas was someone who truly embodied the tenets of original Christianity, someone for whom the church should be most proud.

In one case, it is said that Nicholas tossed a bag of gold coins into a needy family’s yard, anonymously. He was apparently humble, and didn’t want to be seen giving money to people, so he did it secretly. He was so famous for wanting to give such gifts in private when he traveled the countryside that children were told to go to sleep quickly or Nicholas would not come with gifts. This, apparently, is the origin of telling children to go to sleep or that Santa will not come.

In one story, he snuck into the home of a family where the three daughters of a poor man were about to get married. Nicholas put some gold into the stockings which the girls left by the fire to dry. This, apparently, is the origin of hanging up stockings on Christmas Eve.

He was also well known for the gifts that he gave to newly married couples during the already established Christmas season. (Remember, the “Christmas season” predates Christianity by several millennia — Christianity simply redefined the winter solstice commemorations of the so-called “pagans.”

And so it goes.  Nicholas was a complex man, part of the new Catholic tradition which celebrated the birth of Jesus on the already-observed winter solstice. (Early Judeo-Christians did not celebrate the birth of Jesus, a date that has been lost to history, but was definitely not Dec. 25).

Nicholas died on Dec. 6, 343, which to this day is known as “St. Nicholas Day.” Upon his death, he was buried in the Cathedral of Myra. He is revered as a saint in most versions of Christianity and is especially honored in Eastern Orthodox Christianity.

By the year 450, churches in Greece and Asia Minor were being named in honor of Nicholas. He was officially honored as a saint by the Eastern Catholic Church in 800. Dec. 6 began to be celebrated as Bishop Nicholas Day in France by the 1200s.

As time went on, whenever someone received a mysterious gift, it would be attributed to St. Nicholas!

The Dutch called St. Nicholas “Sinterklass,” which is the most likely manner in which the name St. Nicholas gradually evolved into “Santa Claus.” Along the way, St. Nicholas was given some of the attributes of Odin, the Norse god, who could travel through the sky and who had a secret home somewhere around the North Pole. Come to think of it, even the Superman story borrowed from Odin. Remember how Superman sometimes goes to a secret cavern in the Northern coldlands and converses with his ancestors via ice crystals?

The image continued to morph over the years, with the Coca Cola company giving the world a somewhat sanitized and plumper St. Nicholas-Santa Claus with their early 20th century advertisements. There we began to see the fatter bearded man in the red suit.

Today, the man you see in the mall is the modern condensation of fact and myth, embodying the generosity of one Catholic bishop, bits of the mythology of Odin, and the good will of all — including parents — who give gifts in his stead. n

Christopher Nyerges is an author, lecturer and educator who has written such books as “Extreme Simplicity,” “How to Survive Anywhere” and “Guide to Wild Foods,” among others. Information about his books and classes is available at SchoolofSelf-Reliance.com, or write to him at Box 41834, Eagle Rock, Calif., 90041.