In December, millions of families around the world will celebrate St. Nicholas Day, the feast day of the 4th-century Christian saint also known as Nicholas of Myra. While St. Nicholas historically was associated with Catholic, Orthodox, Lutheran and Anglican churches—a growing number of congregations in the Protestant branch of the faith are promoting celebrations of St. Nicholas Day as an alternative to the highly commercialized figure of Santa Claus associated with Christmas, or the Nativity.
A Russian icon of Saint Nicholas, dating from the first quarter of the 18th century.
To help journalists around the world report on this hugely popular religious tradition, IARJ members David Crumm and Stephanie Fenton also called on journalist Carol Myers, the founding editor of the St. Nicholas Center website, which is the world’s largest repository of information about the saint today.
Collectively, we are sharing these tips to make your reporting on St. Nicholas accurate and balanced:
Dates and names vary—In the Western world, including much of Europe and the U.S., December 6 is St. Nicholas’ feast day on most church calendars—but December 19 is observed as the feast day in Eastern Christian countries. To further complicate matters, some Christian groups use alternative calendars. If you plan to report on this religious observance—carefully check dates in your part of the world. Also, remember that the name of the figure at the heart of these festivities varies as well, including Saint Nicholas, St. Nikolaos, Sinterklaas and more. As you begin reporting, check regional details!
To assist with worldwide coverage of St. Nicholas, Carol Myers’ St. Nicholas Center website offers these resources:
- St. Nicholas overview: Carol summarizes the history of how St. Nicholas “became” the modern Santa Claus. Links from this page also carry you deeper into this extremely detailed website.
- Worldwide church gazetteer: Over many years, Carol has amassed information about thousands of St. Nicholas churches around the world. For example, her Africa section of the gazetteer lists churches in 12 countries, her Middle East section shows churches in 9 countries—and so on. If you are a journalist reporting on a St. Nicholas church, anywhere in the world, Carol gives you easy links on these pages to help her keep adding to the gazetteer of this widely used website. In Africa, for example, journalists will find that Carol needs photographs of a number of the churches—and probably is missing some churches that she has not yet identified. Get involved. Carol follows the best practices in properly crediting all submissions to her site. Her website is a nonprofit project, so there is no payment, but you will be properly credited by name for your photos or reporting details, which will be seen by other readers around the world.
- Customs around the world: The section of the Center website on national traditions is heavily weighted toward Europe—through Eastern Europe and into the Middle East. Carol does include a few other parts of the world in this section—but she also is offering to feature reporting from countries that she has not yet included in her list. Again, she is always careful to properly credit work you may want to share with her.
- Controversies: If you report on St. Nicholas in your part of the world, you may never encounter the controversial figures sparking debate in some countries. But carefully check in your reporting. You may encounter some of these troubling figures. A good example of controversy is a character known as Black Peter, primarily in areas with Dutch cultural influences. Historians disagree on the deeper roots of this particular figure, but most agree that Black Peter was crystallized as a character in the mid 1800s and protesters, in 2016, are calling for either a removal or a rethinking of Black Peter. Carol Myers’ history of the figure and the controversy is very detailed and helpful to journalists. She also has information on other cultural companions to the saint, including the terrifying figure called Krampus, which had been little known outside of some regions in Europe but now has popped up in some English-language TV shows and even a 2015 American feature film.
Stephanie Fenton also has published her own Holidays column on St. Nicholas, which includes Stephanie’s summary of highlights for 2016.
Who is Carol Myers?
In the U.S., Carol has been known for her many years as a Christian educator and writer, always trying to revive the original religious focus of observances that sometimes are eclipsed by commercial culture—especially St. Nicholas’ feast day. In 2000, she met Anglican communicator and St. Nicholas enthusiast Jim Rosenthal in Canterbury, England. They agreed to combine their efforts. Over the years, Rosenthal provided inspiration, countless photos and he also has been active in the UK in reviving St. Nicholas observances. Carol, based in the U.S., created the now massive website http://www.StNicholasCenter.org
A Word from Carol
We asked Carol to explain her nonprofit center to journalists. She writes:
St. Nicholas Center exists to educate people of faith, and the wider public, about the true St. Nicholas, and why he is important in today’s world. We tell the story of St. Nicholas, encourage families, churches, and schools to observe St. Nicholas Day, and provide resources for education and celebration.
Here you will find everything related to St. Nicholas—all the traditional stories and legends, original source material, the origin of Santa Claus, critical information from scholars, St. Nicholas customs in 42 countries, and the primary festivals devoted to him. Free resources include many ideas, instructions, and patterns for crafts, games, music, liturgical material, scripts, recipes, stories, poems, and ideas for teachers. There are costume patterns and suggestions for making St. Nicholas visits, too. The gazetteer has over 6,400 St. Nicholas churches from around the world, most with photos. Extensive galleries show St. Nicholas as found in museums, events in churches, schools, and public venues, and a large collection showing every imaginable St. Nicholas item.
We do this because we believe St. Nicholas is a model of how Christians are meant to live. As priest and bishop, Nicholas put Jesus Christ at the center of his life and ministry. His concern for children and others in need or danger expressed a love for God which points toward Jesus, the source of true caring and compassion. Embracing St. Nicholas customs can help recover the true center of Christmas—the birth of Jesus. Understanding St. Nicholas as the original holiday gift-giver also helps shift focus more to giving than getting, to compassion than consumption, to need rather than greed. This helps restore balance to increasingly materialistic and stress-filled Advent and Christmas seasons.
How did this happen? When my children were small I wanted them to know there was a person of faith behind Santa Claus. So we did simple things for St. Nicholas Day—small treats in wooden shoes and talking about the saint. This interest grew, my St. Nicholas collection expanded, and I had exhibits in our fine local museum. Next James Rosenthal, then communications director for the Anglican Communion, challenged me in 2002 to create a website. I wanted to make it easy for people to find the resources I would have liked when my children were young. It has grown beyond anyone’s expectation with over one million visitors each year. Many authors, artists, publishers, families, and church folk have generously shared ideas and material, helping to make it a rich resource. St. Nicholas Center is a registered non-profit in the State of Michigan with federal tax exempt status; it is a one-person volunteer project.
Care to read more?
FROM THE IARJ—Please follow the IARJ on Twitter and Facebook. If you sign up for our Twitter feed, you’ll see some interesting examples of coverage of the Jewish High Holidays featured in our news items. Also, encourage friends to follow our Twitter feed, which provides fascinating news from around the world in several languages. The IARJ Twitter feed will give you a far more diverse window into the world’s religious and cultural diversity. If you are a journalist covering religion, consider becoming a member of the IARJ.
David Crumm is a veteran religion writer and publisher who works with the communications team of the International Association of Religion Journalists (IARJ).