If you visit Bari, Italy you can meet the real Santa Claus! Unlike most saints, Saint Nikolas’ earthly remains were never dispersed to various churches – this is usually done to make pilgrimages a more economic and feasible endeavor for the masses.
It was found that Saint Nick was approximately 5ft tall, and in 2005 a facial reconstruction was done. Amazing as it is, we know what Santa Claus looked like, even though he passed away some 1,670 years ago.
He lived in a tumultuous time of civil war for the Roman Empire and spent many years in prison because of his defense of his Christian faith. This all changed in February 313 when Emperor Constantine drafted the Edict of Milan, which put an end to prosecution of all religions, allowing citizens to worship whichever deity they chose.
Constantine is noted as the first Christian Emperor, and the founder of the Holy Roman Empire, but he tactfully paid homage to a number of gods and goddesses depending on what event or region he was visiting.
As we all know, Santa Claus is based on the Turkish St. Nikolas of Myra. He is best known as the patron saint of sailing, but is also the patron saint of banking, pawnbroking, pirating, butchery, thievery, children, gift giving, orphans, royalty, and New York City.
Early illustrations of St. Nicholas depict him as stern, commanding, and holding a birch rod. He was more a symbol of discipline and punishment than the jolly, overweight elf children know today.
It was the period from 1200-1500 that he really hit his stride as a joyful gift giver. After the Protestant Reformation of 1517 he fell out of favor, and it was at this time that the giving of gifts transitioned from his day, December 6th, to December 25th.
Up until ~1517 the gift sharing of Christmas was done on December 6th because it was a tradition associated purely with Saint Nick. Once he lost his mojo people still loved getting gifts, so the tradition became tied to the birth of Christ simply due to the proximity of the dates.
Ultimately, the story of our modern image of Santa may have been solidified by Coca-Cola, but the image they used wasn’t original – it was one of several that had been floating around for several decades. What Coca-Cola did was to eliminate the uncertainty, and instill in the public conscience a single image of what Santa Claus looks like.