I remember when I realized Santa Claus was more than a man selling his likeness for photographs at the mall, waving from a float in the Christmas parade, or a plastic figure standing by my bed. It was many years later, while traveling in the Serbian capital of Belgrade. The legends of a saint called Nicholas were vaguely familiar to me. He came from the regions of Anatolia (modern day Turkey) known as Cappadocia. Over time, stories of his charity and miracles merged with certain northern European legends. Like the unknown debris of a forgotten shipwreck, these ideas were floating along the uninhabited shores of my mind. I knew an image of the Santa from my youth. I had read stories of a saint from the ancient Christian east. Neither the likeness of a jolly old elf or the legend of a saint seemed to connect; until now.
The Ružica Church (The Church of the Holy Mother of God) is small by any standard. Tucked within an isolated corner of the Kalamegdan Fortress overlooking the Danube River on the western edge of Belgrade, it has been a place of Christian worship since the 1520’s. The current building dates from 1867. The church is an organic, living work of God which grows from the dead walls of the disused fortress. Visitors, regardless of their faith tradition, feel drawn to this tiny corner of Belgrade to see an ancient Christian tradition at work. The church was no more or less ornate than many of the other Serbian Orthodox churches I had already seen.
While some years have passed, I remember one icon standing apart from the elaborate iconostasis and others painted on the church ceiling. It was probably on a stand somewhere near the entrance. The large icon depicted one man, an older white-bearded cleric. Surrounding this bishop’s portrait, around the edge of the icon, were scenes from the man’s life. He was a bishop. The Old Church Slavonic script beneath his portrait identified him as “Saint Nikolai of Myra”. I had come face to face with Santa Claus.
I once sat on Santa’s lap to be photographed while visiting a local shopping mall. While the photograph wasn’t bad, the man in the picture was not Santa Claus. Now thousands of miles from home, this was the closest I’d ever been to the real person known as Santa Claus. What was the age of this icon? My best guess was at least 500 years old. It may have been Russian in origin or more likely, it came out one of the monasteries in south of Serbia. The image was probably created by a Russian artisan in the 1500’s and emulated around the Orthodox world. This picture and the brief life stories which surrounded it told the journey of the real man, whose tangible actions inspired the legends we’ve made into a definitive Christmas tradition. This is what’s unique about an Orthodox icon; it is not like gazing upon a Picasso, Monet, or Van Gogh. Icons are hand painted photographs, written works of painted scripture, connecting the stories of living people across multiple generations. I was looking at who Saint Nicholas was not who Victorian Britain, Charles Dickens, or Madison Avenue thought he should be.
Eastern Orthodox iconography will often depict incidents in the life of the saint around the perimeter of the icon. By coming closer, I could see how these early Orthodox Christians viewed Nicholas, well before our own age of commercial distortion. Without a doubt, he is a miracle worker. He is seen raising the dead; much like Jesus and the early apostles. There are also scenes which depict him preventing martyrdom, preaching the gospel, and interceding on behalf of children. Saint Nicholas is a fourth century bishop in the best sense of the word. From even the most cursory glance, the viewer can feel the uncertainty with which he lived. His world was not a Christian world. Christianity was not the dominant culture. Christianity wasn’t the least offensive non-secular alternative to worshiping other gods. His faith was barely legal. He appears to be perpetually at risk. Whether he is saving drowning merchants or navigating Byzantine court politics during the Council of Nicaea, he seems fearless. As I moved from frame to frame (like a comic strip), I could feel my heart begin to race. I did not want him to die or face harm. I knew the outcome people like Nicholas usually met.
There are many images and ideas absent from this important icon. There are no reindeer, bags of gifts, sleighs, or visits to the Arctic. Santa is confined to his home in Asia Minor (modern day Turkey). Apart from his white beard and overall sense of benevolence, he bore little resemblance to the man the west insisted on calling Santa Claus. Despite this incongruity, I had no doubt I was looking at the real Santa Claus, the one and only Saint Nicholas. I liked him and what he’d done. His was a life of light. I couldn’t help but notice how he was always entering caves and opening tombs. Light was his one great gift. Saint Nicholas reminded me of someone else I knew; a 1st century rabbi who couldn’t stay out of the way of death, politicians, or needy people. Nicholas had much to offer. It was there, in Serbia, I realized the true story of Saint Nicholas needed to be told.