Is Saint Nicholas a god?

Saint nick, horse and Petes

Today is 6 December – for those living in Belgium and the Netherlands, Saint Nicholas will come to distribute gifts and candy to young children. Saint Nick has been the predecessor of Santa Claus in the US (as you can still see in his red costume, although the bishop's mitre is replaced by a red bonnet, the horse by a flock of reindeer, the Petes by elves, and all references to Christianity have been discarded). It is remarkable how resilient Saint Nick in spite of the foreign cultural pressure of Santa Claus; he is not likely to go away, even though shops tried to promote Santa Claus fiercely a few years ago.

Each year Saint Nick comes to my daughter's school (as he did to my school), accompanied by Black Pete, his black henchman. The children all wear costumes and perform dances they have been rehearsing for weeks, and are then each given candy and presents. He also is often seen on the street at this time of year, sometimes riding a (preferably white) horse. According to my folklore professor (who unfortunately didn't give me any references on this), Saint Nick is a cultural adaptation of Odin: his bishop staff reminiscent of Odin's staff, his bunch of Black Petes reminiscent of the 'wild bunch' of ghosts that were believed to roam the land of the living during the fall, whose black faces are not a reference to ethnicity, but rather an emphasis on their supernatural origin. The name of the horse 'slechtweervandaag' (bad weather today) is seen by some as a distortion of Schleipnir, Odin's horse.

Whatever be the case, Saint Nick certainly has a lot of attributes that gods have, for example, he is a counterintuitive agent in that he is omniscient (sees whether children have been good or bad) and can distort space-time by visiting all 30 million or so Belgian and Dutch households in a single night. He also has a moral dimension: according to a recent Dutch study, reported in the media, children who still believe in Saint Nick behave better in the months prior to St Nick's than those who don't.

Justin Barrett in the paper 'Why Santa Claus is not a God', published in the Journal of Cognition and Culture, nevertheless argued that Santa (who is similar to Saint Nick in many relevant aspects) is not a God, although he conforms better to several criteria for divinity than other counterintuitive agents like Mickey Mouse or the Tooth fairy. His main argument is that Santa did not develop a community of true believers and a cult.

Regarding the cult aspect, an anthropologist who would have seen the Saint Nicholas festivities at my daughter's school would nevertheless get an impression not unlike  WestAfrican masked dances, where the presence of the deity is enacted by a masked person. In several of these dances, the children (and sometimes women) are led to believe that the masked person is really the spirit he is representing, but all adult males know that he is just a dancer.  In the case of the African dancers, however, nobody doubts that the masked dancer represents a deity or spirit. The fact that Saint Nick's physical presence is only limited to a few days a year is not a problem either: after all the Dogin Dogon Sigi-ritual, for example, only takes place every sixty years.

So what is the difference with Saint Nick at the school celebration? Perhaps it is that Nick does not have a community of adult believers. But virtually all adults believed in him as a child. And this often motivates them to keep on following the tradition of Saint Nick with their own children – it is "the magic" of their childhood they want their children to also experience. Hence, even if the adults don't believe in Santa anymore, their beliefs as children still seem to motivate their decisions as adults to continue the tradition.



  • Ilkka Pyysiäinen 7 December 2008 (09:37)

    We cannot, of course , explore whether an agent really is a god. All we can analyze, is whether this agent is a god to somedody. In my (Finnish) experience St. Nicholas or Father Christmas are gods to kids up to 8 years or so. He’s not a god for adults because adults do not believe in him. The beliefs are too easily falsified because they contain empirical references.

  • Olivier Morin
    Olivier Morin 7 December 2008 (14:30)

    Saint Nicholas is not a god, it is a saint of the Catholic Church. Belief in Saint Nicholas correlates with catholic culture, but, among catholics, it highly local, both geographically and demographically (in France, where he is celebrated in quite a similar way as that described by Helen, he is the Patron Saint of children, and Lorraine; in other countries he might be worshipped by particular towns – Freiburg, or by the whole nation – in Russia); the cult is equally restricted to a very brief period of the year, and concerns only a fraction of the population (as helen points out, no one expects you to believe in Nick if you’re not a child). This is exactly what you expect of a saint in the catholic tradition. Not everyone is supposed to believe strongly in everyone else’s saints, and it is perfectly OK to downplay the achievements of next-door saints, even to express utter disbelief, if they are worshipped by a community you dislike, e.g. another village, or another country (this sense of community, and occasional parochialism, is vivid in the case of Santa Claus vs. Saint Nicholas). The association with local or commercial festivals, the competition with rivalling entities with similar attributions (in this case, Santa Claus) are also quite familiar in the history of catholic saints (witness the proliferation of corporate saints and festivals for barbers, bankers, etc., or the competitions between pagan and christian cults). Now, aren’t Saints ”gods” of a sort? And is that an interesting question? Frankly, I don’t think so. A typology of religious entities with only 2 categories (1/god-like, 2/ not-god-like), that would ignore local institutions, like sainthood for Bishop Nicholas, or tales for the Tooth Fairy, and consider only the way they compare with strongly monotheistic religions, like protestant christianism, seems sterile to me. What is or isn’t a ”god” in an institution is largely decided by local institutions themselves – and these institutions may godify pretty much anything, or nothing, or admit of only one God. The late Roman Empire deified Rivers, Emperors, male and female lovers of emperors, etc. which were not often unanimously thought to have supernatural powers, or to be immortal, or indeed to be anything special except for their godness. One could argue, of course, that these weren’t ”really” gods, but one would then have to produce an exhaustive definition of divinity – not merely a correct and universal definition, but also a useful one.

  • Nicola Knight
    Nicola Knight 7 December 2008 (16:43)

    Thanks for the interesting post, Helen. I think that the crucial difference between the two entities is the degree of agreement between ’believers’ on crucial properties (e.g., the five that Justin Barrett notes in his paper, although perhaps there are more). This, of course, could be due to the fact that the reinforcement, simplification, and codification of representations regarding non-natural agents largely takes place in adulthood; since, as you rightly note, a crucial distinguishing factor is that Santa does not, by and large, have a community of adult believers, the possibility for such homogeneization of knowledge is much reduced. Let me be clear — I don’t think that it is accurate to say that the representation of God’s/gods’ properties are perfectly homogeneous between people in any community of any size, but it seems plausible that there is going to be less disagreement about, say, God possessing the counterintuitive property of omniscience (and this being central to its representation) than about Santa having the capacity to go through narrow openings or to travel at remarkably high speeds. Olivier: I was interested to read about the Santa Claus/St Nicholas opposition that you make. Do people in parts of France not perceive that the two are the same? Or is it more of a Father Christmas/St Nicholas opposition? At least as far as Italy is concerned, people do discriminate between the two (Papa’/Babbo Natale and San Nicola), but the name Nicholas (Niklaas, Nicola, Nick, etc.) is not used for Father Chrismas at all; in addition, as in the US and UK, religious regalia (shepherd’s crook, mitre, and so forth) are only associated with saints but never with Father Christmas.

  • guest guest 7 December 2008 (19:47)

    From an article in the NRC Handelsblad that you can find here:

    ”Saint Nicholas, the Dutch equivalent of Father Christmas or Santa Claus, is a national institution in the Netherlands. But unlike his Anglo-American counterpart who is surrounded by elves, the Saint’s helpers are black and arouse controversy every time he arrives on Dutch soil for his annual visit.”

    ”Dutch children are told he is black because he comes down the chimney to deliver presents and gets covered in soot, but Black Pete’s foolish behaviour and speech are typical of nineteenth-century attitudes toward black people. Unlike Saint Nicholas, who is a historic legend, Pete was invented by a Dutch teacher in 1852.”

    ”…nothing is as changeable as tradition.”

  • Olivier Morin
    Olivier Morin 8 December 2008 (09:38)

    Nicola: first, let me express my belated congratulations on your saint’s day! Do some people in France think Nicolas and Père Noël are one and the same entity? Some children might, but the vast majority doesn’t. Two reasons: Saint Nicolas is a highly local institution, it is practiced mostly in Lorraine and Alsace (Eastern regions with Germanic culture and a special religious status), and maybe by a few catholic hard-liners wishing to oppose the rise of Père Noël. Unless you grew up in one of these backgrounds, chances are you never heard of Nicolas. Second, Nicolas and Père Noël are not celebrated at the same time, which may allow families to celebrate both Nicolas and Christmas – but also prompts them to distinguish the two celebrations, and explain the distinction to the children.

  • Justin Barrett 8 December 2008 (16:02)

    This past weekend I celebrated St Nicholas Day with my family by doing what American’s typically do on Christmas Day regarding Santa Claus–lots of gifting at an unfortunate hour of the day. Every year in the days leading up to St Nicholas Day, as a family we read tales about the life of the Bishop of Myra that emphasize his gift-giving to children. We then enjoy the opportunity of imitating St Nick on his saint’s day by ’playing Santa Claus.’ (I apologize to my Dutch colleagues for this cultural distortion–it seems to be one of those things Americans do well.) My point in sharing this practice is to illustrate a way in which Santa Claus may function for people that differs from how ’gods’ often function–sometimes in ways that are not clear. It is not uncommon for Santa Claus to be compared to God (or gods) but I fear many comparison’s gloss some important differences or build in assumptions that amount to open empirical claims. One assumption is that children in North America and Europe ’believe’ in Santa Claus/Father Christmas the same way as they ’believe’ in God. I’m not so sure. I don’t doubt that some children are deeply committed to the existence of Santa Claus as a specific solitary individual with unusual properties, but I suspect many children view Santa Claus as more of an abstraction or office (as illustrated in The Santa Clause movies starring Tim Allen) or something else altogether. I don’t pretend that I was a representative child, but by four or five I had discovered that St Nicholas died over a thousand years ago and so the idea that Santa Claus today is the same person struck me as implausible. Nevertheless, I ’played along’. In my (brief and unscientific) interviews with some American adults, I found that this ’playing along’ was not uncommon. Is this kind of commitment similar to that which children hold for gods? Perhaps. I don’t know if we have good evidence. What is much clearer is that by middle childhood we have a level of commitment to God and other gods (including ghosts) that is typically much higher than for Santa Claus. Something different is going on in terms of belief formation and, as a Sperberian, I think a good place to look is at how the conceptual structures of Santa Claus differ from gods. A challenge, then, is to determine the conceptual structures at play, and when it comes to Santa Claus (and many gods), it is not clear what the concept is. For instance, another common variant that I found in discussions with adults was that they once thought Santa Claus was a ghost and very scary. How frequent is this view? Is Santa Claus immortal? Omniscient or only possessing magical means to divine who is naughty and who is nice? A valuable project would be to document the relative diversity of representations. Huge variability under the same semantic marker within the same communities (or even families) would suggest that it might be problematic to talk about a ’Santa’ concept or a ’St Nicholas’ concept as a ’cultural’ concept. Perhaps the inferential cores are unstable in a way that isn’t true of particular gods–or maybe gods receive the additional ’cultural scaffolding’ necessary to create stability even when they have drifted from a stable inferential core. (I persist in using the term ’gods’ because I have tried to identify some of the conceptual characteristics of what I mean by ’god’ (in the Santa article in JoCC) and suspect that it captures what most comparative religionists mean by ’god’–though ghosts sneak in as marginal cases. I think a cognitive approach gives us some explanatory leverage in explaining ’gods’ in my sense but I don’t assume that it maps onto everyone’s interests.) One important sense in which Santa (and tooth fairies) differ from gods that seems to be ignored is related to the point Ilkka raises: falsification. Santa and the Tooth Fairy (at least in the US and Canada) are elaborate tricks enacted by parents. Parents (and other adults) manufacture empirical evidence for the activity of Santa and for the Tooth Fairy. When the empirical evidence dries up or is shown to be accounted for in another way, Santa and the Tooth Fairy have credibility problems. My impression is that it is very unusual in religious systems for adults to fabricate evidence of the activity of the gods. They may look for empirical evidence–e.g. the gods have been nibbling on the food we left out–but it is unusual for the adults to do the nibbling and then pretend it was the gods. Santa-beliefs, then, are transmitted in an importantly different way than god-beliefs are. (The incidence of adult conversion to belief in gods but not to Santa is further evidence of the differences.) I see great value in studying ’Santa Claus’ and ’St Nicholas’ precisely because there seem to be great differences between them and god-concepts. But this value will only be realized, I suspect, if we resist the temptation to treat these as coherent concepts that are ’out there’ for us to inspect.

  • guest guest 8 December 2008 (18:36)

    Or do you mean the Dogon in Mali?

  • Olivier Morin
    Olivier Morin 8 December 2008 (20:02)

    Thank you Jutta.

  • Jesper Soerensen 8 December 2008 (20:17)

    Even if there is a conceptual difference between the Santa concept and that of what is ordinarily referred to as ’gods’, it is not because evidence of gods are not often deliberately fabricated in different religious traditions. During initiation rituals, children are often told that the masked figures are not spirits or gods (which were the story before), but in fact dressed up fathers and uncles. Examples includes the Hopi Katchina cult as well as several African examples. In these cases, ’exposure’ does not seem to have negative influence on the epistemic status of the gods after the ritual.

  • Ilkka Pyysiäinen 9 December 2008 (09:21)

    I still insist that for kids Santa Claus or Father Christmas is a real supernatural agent, just as the Christian God. It does not matter that for adults he is not; for any ”god”, there are always people for whom he or she is not real. A group of adults can even impose belief in a god to another group of adults (whether they themselves believe or not!), just as we impose belief in Santa on kids. Why would the dividing line between children and adults be more important than the dividing lines that separate between different religions? Unless, of course, you think that God is real and Santa is not. Moreover, ”god” is not an explanatory scientific concept but rather an emic term that has been generalized without much reflection. Therefore, it is quite useless for a cognitive scientist to argue on whether something really is a god or not, or whether something is ”religion” or not. What is interesting is how people reason about nonnatural agent concepts in general.

  • Helen De Cruz
    Helen De Cruz 9 December 2008 (14:19)

    Thank you for all these comments! I am intrigued by Jesper’s observation that a clear falsification of empirical evidence (i.e., the initiation rites where children are told that the masked figures are in fact not spirits or gods) does not automatically lead to a disbelief in these spirits, whereas in the Santa and Saint Nick cases it clearly does. Nevertheless, as a child I personally knew some children who were very well aware that St Nick at our school was the second-grade teacher, but yet believed that there was a real ’St Nick’ out there, living either in Heaven or Spain (this remained unclear), but being ’represented’ by helpers. These children were still convinced that the real St Nick brought them presents. This might lead one to suppose that falsifying empirical evidence in religious practice might be distinct from falsification in everyday epistemic activities (e.g., testing a hypothesis why someone is late, for example).

  • Justin Barrett 9 December 2008 (14:35)

    I want to thank Jesper for the point he makes about some cases of people play-acting as spirits not undermining belief in the spirits. This illustrates nicely that there is more to the success of gods than simply how they are told about them–their conceptual structure matters. I suspect, however, that upon close inspection we would find that the transmission contexts and strategies do differ between Jesper’s examples and what is common with Santa Claus and the Tooth Fairy. In my ethnographic experience, the natives of Acirema, at least, seem to almost exclusively get taught about Santa and the Tooth Fairy surrounding the only instances in which their existence holds any relevance, AND the fabrication of evidence for them pertains directly to these rare instances of relevance. For instance, the only evidence provided for the Tooth Fairy is when the Tooth Fairy is exchanging money for teeth and the Tooth Fairy is only discussed in the lead up to or immediately following such an event. But suppose the similarities are greater than I suspect. It could be fun to identify a group of children who still believe in Santa but are getting old enough that their parents would be just as happy if they stopped believing and then randomly assign them to three conditions: (1) the Noble Charade condition in which they are taught that there is a real Santa but their parents and other adults (at shopping centers, etc.) play the role of Santa to honor him and assist in his noble work; (2) the Ignoble Charade condition in which the children are taught only that parents and other adults play the role of Santa; and (3) the control condition in which they are taught nothing at all about Santa. Which group would be more likely to still believe in Santa a year later?

  • Jesper Soerensen 10 December 2008 (20:34)

    I like Justin’s idea for a study. My former comment was not an attempt to argue that there is no distinction between Santa and most concepts of gods, but only the fabrication of evidence and its subsequent exposure cannot be the most important variable. I believe Justin points to the fundamental issue, namely that the number of pragmatically relevant areas of any given superhuman agent. In case of the Toothfairy and Santa, exposing the fabricated evidence should have a devastating effect as it undermines the only relevant pragmatic repertoire of these agent — that of delivering gifts. In other cases, the superhuman agents are connected to other pragmatically relevant areas, and the purpose of exposure might be to cognitively direct attention to these. In short kids are ’told’, that even thoough the spirits are not what you believed, they are even more important mysterious and potent — and YOU now have access to this knowledge. All things being equal, this should enhance the salience and individually experienced relevance of these representations. I wonder whether the very act of exposure itself actually enhances the potential for some superhuman agents to be connected to other pragmatic repertoires, and what it takes for it to have this effect? Another point might be the extend to which such redirection of attention would be connected to age related changes in relevancy, e.g. that the superhuman agents goes from simple gift giving to being concerned with morality and the formation of age-groups? If this is the case, the exposure-redirection of attention should happen at particular developmental windows in order to have effect.