Explaining Christmas
7 min read

Red radical: the tales behind the Santa we see today

A determined, fiery, culture warrior lies behind the iconic image of Santa. Graham Tomlin unwraps a tale or two and find some serious theology.

Graham is the Director of the Centre for Cultural Witness and a former Bishop of Kensington.

A Lego Stanta figure strolls across a table holding a wrench
Artem Maltsev on Unsplash.

There is one figure in our cultural memory who pops up at this time of year without fail. It is the unmistakable figure of Santa. 

Santa Claus, AKA Father Christmas, Sinterklaas in Holland or Kris Kringle in the USA conjures up a definite image in the mind’s eye. The Santa of popular imagination with elves, red suit, bushy white beard flying in a sleigh towed by reindeer was shaped more by the famous Coca Cola adverts of the 1930s than anything else, and may seem to have very little connection with the birth of Christ. There are, however, strong connections between Santa and the Christian celebration of Christmas.  

Santa Claus is a linguistic development of St Nicholas, who was a real, fiery, determined Christian bishop of the early 4th century. Many of the stories about him date from later centuries, and some, no doubt, are legends developed to enhance his reputation. Yet he clearly made a deep impact on those who encountered him. On the principle that there's no smoke without fire, while some of it may be fiction, these stories may also contain a grain of truth.  

A group of enterprising Italian sailors from Bari in southern Italy made a daring raid on the city, scooped up most of St Nicholas’ skeleton and carried it off home. 

Nicholas was born around 260 AD. His parents, or so the story goes, died of the plague while he was young, leaving him a reasonable fortune. The other thing we know about his youth was his profound and strong Christian faith. This shaped his mind from early years, and led him, like many young Christians at the time, to enter the demanding spiritual boot camp of the monastic life, and then in time to becoming the Bishop of Myra, a city in southern Turkey known today as Demre.  

Christianity at the time was deemed a dangerous religion, subversive of the unity of the Roman Empire and in 303 AD he was one of many Christian leaders imprisoned under the wave of persecution initiated by the emperor Diocletian. Not only did he survive the rigours of a brutal Roman jail, but he encouraged other Christian prisoners to stand firm, who, like him, emerged more determined than ever. He died around 335 AD and within a few hundred years had become one of the most celebrated saints of the mediaeval era, with numerous accounts of his life spreading around Europe.   

In the 10th century the Russian emperor Vladimir visited Turkey and was so impressed with the stories of St. Nicholas that he pronounced him the patron saint of Russia and he remains a hugely venerated figure in Russian Orthodoxy to this day. In 1087, when Myra had come under Islamic rule, a group of enterprising Italian sailors from Bari in southern Italy made a daring raid on the city, scooped up most of St Nicholas’ skeleton and carried it off home, where with great fanfare, a large basilica was erected around the resting place of the bones of St Nicholas – an attraction which enhanced the status of the city no end. It became a pilgrimage destination for numerous medieval Christians (which was what the sailors had in mind) and the edifice still stands on the very spot to this day.

He was promptly sent home for stepping out of line, but it did his reputation as a hero of orthodoxy no harm at all. 

There are two stories of St Nicholas that get us closer to understanding why he became such a key figure in our Christmas celebrations.  

While he was still a young man, so we are told, he heard of a local family who were falling into poverty. A father who was badly in debt desperately needed money to pay off loan sharks, otherwise his only option (as happened in many families at the time) was sell his three daughters into slavery, or in some versions of the story, into prostitution. St Nicholas, aware of the teaching of Jesus that good deeds should be done in secret, resolved to do what he could to help. He wrapped up a bag of gold coins and secretly dropped them into the window of the house to the relief and delight of the poverty-stricken family. Nicholas performed this act of generosity three times for each of the three daughters, and on the third occasion threw the bag of gold coins so far into the room that it fell into a sock hanging over the fire to dry - hence stockings on Christmas Eve. On that occasion the father caught Nicholas as he tried to slip away, and thanked him profusely. Nicholas insisted he tell no one, which the man assured him he would not. Obviously, he didn't keep his promise. 

It is this kind of story that gives rise to the idea that Nicholas was a picture of radical generosity. Ever since then, depictions of St Nicholas are recognisable by his carrying three gold balls, representing the three bags of gold coins – and the same symbol found its way to hang outside many a pawnbrokers’ shop, after St Nicholas was adopted as their patron saint.  

The other story relates to the famous Council of Nicaea in 325 AD. Although historians debate the question, there is some evidence Nicholas might have been present at this Council at which the Nicene Creed was written, the Creed that describes the heart of Christian faith for most Christian churches to this day. The Council centred around the controversial teaching of Arius, a priest from Alexandria who had taught that Jesus, although the best person who ever lived, the pinnacle of creation, was not in any significant sense divine, as the Council eventually discerned he was. The story goes that Nicholas was so incensed by the teaching of Arius that at one point he strode across the room in which the Council was taking place and struck him on the face. He was promptly sent home for stepping out of line, but it did his reputation as a hero of orthodoxy no harm at all. A heretic being punched by Santa Claus is an image to conjure with.  

The stories of St Nicholas give us the impression of someone who does not just do generous acts, but who has become generous. 

So why did St Nicholas become a person of such radical generosity? Were these two stories, however apocryphal some of the details may be, strangely linked? 

At stake in the debates at Nicaea was the question of whether Jesus Christ was just an illustration, a good example of what human life can achieve, or whether his radical love and self-sacrifice was in fact an expression of the heart of God, the very heart of reality itself. That is the core insight at the heart of the Nicene Creed – that when we see Jesus, we see God. The compassion, courage, grace, generosity, the anger at evil of the world, the deep compassion for those who struggle with life that flows out of him at every moment – all this is not a brief moment of light in an essentially dark world, but is the very nature of reality itself. In other words, Jesus Christ represents God giving to the world, not just a gift, but giving Himself.  

That kind of belief seems to have animated the soul and the mind of Nicholas, and if you believe that generosity is what lies at the very heart of things, its not surprising if it starts to seep out into a life full of generosity. Alongside the gifts to the struggling family, Nicholas is said to have argued the emperor into a tax cut for the people of Myra, and secured extra shipping of grain for his people during famine. The stories of St Nicholas give us the impression of someone who does not just do generous acts, but who has become generous – it’s the difference between the lucky tennis player who plays a good shot every now and again, and the pro who plays that shot nine times out of ten. That is virtue – where a person is generous almost without thinking about it, because it has become second nature.  

There are, of course, differences between the Santa of popular memory and St Nicholas. It’s hard to imagine Santa punching anyone, whereas St Nicholas had the fierce, determined faith of the early church, a faith so compelling that it took over the entire Roman empire. Then again, Santa gives gifts to children who are good but not to those who have been bad. He is a moral arbiter who rewards those whose good deeds outweigh their bad ones. That is about as far removed from a Christian understanding of grace, as depicted in the stories of St Nicholas as possible. In Christianity, divine generosity is not a reward for goodness, but is the wellspring of it. The God that Nicholas learnt about from his earliest days gives first and asks questions later. Generosity inspires gratitude and generosity as a response. 

St Nicholas became associated with Christmas partly because his feast day, December 6th, was near to the annual feast, but also because of this theme of radical generosity. Christmas is the time when Christians recall God’s greatest gift – the gift of Christ given to people of dubious moral standing like us. Not because we deserved it but despite the fact that we didn’t. It’s why we give gifts at Christmas, not to win favours from others, but for the sheer joy of it. We give as an act of gratitude for we have been given, before we even asked for it – just like three helpless young women, and their desperate father, in need of help.  

Explaining Christmas
11 min read

The Three Kings in Renaissance Florence

Alison Harpur explores the significance of Epiphany in Italian Renaissance art and how it reflects the life of the city.

Alison Harpur is an art historian, specialising in Italian Renaissance art, her further interests include theological methodologies for the history of art.

A round nativity scene depicts a procession of visitors including the Three Kings.
The Adoration of the Magi, Fra Angelico and Fra Filippo Lippi.
National Gallery of Art, Washington D.C.

We’re nearly at the end of the first week of January, as I am writing this, and the festivities of Christmas feel like a distant memory already. Although the traditional Twelve Days of Christmas run from Christmas Day until 5 January, by now we have probably put our Christmas jumpers back in the wardrobe and returned to the usual routine. But while sparkling decorations may already have been consigned to the cupboard until next Christmas, it is in these early days of the new year when Christians traditionally celebrate three of the most memorable characters of the Christmas story: the Magi, also known as the Three Kings or the Three Wise Men.  

We associate the Magi with children’s nativity plays in the joyful days of December, and with gifts of gold, frankincense, and myrrh that look very much like they were cardboard boxes before they were covered with gold paint and sprinkled with glitter. But celebration of the Magi and their presentation of gifts to the newborn Jesus is actually commemorated on 6th January, the feast of Epiphany, when the light of God’s revelation breaks through the dreary January days. 

The Magi were interpreted as symbols of the Three Ages of Man (youth, middle age, and old age) and, before the discovery of the Americas, of the three known continents (Africa, Asia, and Europe). 


In the Bible, Matthew says that news of Jesus’s birth was revealed to wise men in the East, who interpreted the appearance of a star as a symbol that the King of the Jews had been born. They travelled to Jerusalem in search of the newborn King, where they encountered Herod, the King of Judea, who was (perhaps not surprisingly) concerned to learn of the birth of an apparent rival to the throne. Herod sent the wise men on to Bethlehem, with instructions to inform him when they found the newborn King, so that he could also go and worship him. We later discover, of course, that Herod’s real intention had been to find Jesus and kill him, in an attempt to remove the threat to his own power. As the wise men proceeded to Bethlehem, the star they had seen went ahead of them and rested over the birthplace of Jesus. There they discovered the newborn Jesus, with his mother, Mary, and they worshipped him, presenting him with gifts of gold, frankincense, and myrrh. Warned in a dream not to return to Herod, the wise men left Bethlehem and returned home.  

 Matthew doesn’t specify how many wise men visited Jesus, but Christian tradition has settled on three, corresponding to the number of their gifts. We are probably very familiar with these gifts of gold, frankincense, and myrrh from nativity plays and thousands of Christmas cards. But we may be less familiar with their traditional symbolism in relation to Jesus: gold for his kingship, frankincense for his divinity, and myrrh to foreshadow his sacrificial death. Stories about the Magi also developed in later literature, and the wise men were given the names of Caspar, Balthasar, and Melchior. The Magi were interpreted as symbols of the Three Ages of Man (youth, middle age, and old age) and, before the discovery of the Americas, of the three known continents (Africa, Asia, and Europe). 

The Washington Adoration of the Magi is not a serene depiction of the biblical kings’ devotion, but the exuberant splendour of a busy Renaissance court. 

We are familiar with representations of Epiphany from paintings such as the Adoration of the Magi in the National Gallery of Art in Washington, D.C., which was painted in Renaissance Florence around the middle of the fifteenth century. It was probably painted by Fra Angelico (c.1395–1455) and Fra Filippo Lippi (c.1406–1469), two of the most important Florentine artists of this period, who were also friars in the convents of San Marco and Santa Maria del Carmine respectively. The circular painting, or tondo, represents the Virgin Mary seated in a rocky but verdant landscape, tenderly supporting the Christ Child on her lap, with Joseph standing at her side. Behind them, a bulky ox lies in front of the stable where Christ was born and an ass eats hay from the manger where we presume Christ was laid. Kneeling among the delicately painted flowers in the foreground are the three Magi and their attendants, presenting their gifts to Christ in adoration. Sumptuously dressed in robes of blue, bright red, and pale lilac, decorated with gold, the Magi wear costumes that would have been understood in fifteenth-century Florence to allude to the exoticism of the East. 

But the Magi are not the only ones who have come to worship Christ in this painting. Behind them, crowds of people stream downhill through an archway, many of them holding out their hands in gestures of awe and reverence. Some of them look upwards towards the star that was said to have rested over the birthplace of Christ. The Washington Adoration of the Magi is not a serene depiction of the biblical kings’ devotion, but the exuberant splendour of a busy Renaissance court or, in the case of fifteenth-century Florence, a bustling mercantile republic. 

Florentine citizens would perform as the Magi and their retinue, processing across the city in elaborate costumes, a rare opportunity to diverge from the strict regulations... that dictated who could wear what in everyday life. 

The Magi and the Medici in Renaissance Florence  

Epiphany was a hugely significant celebration in fifteenth-century Florence. This was partly because the feast of the Magi on 6th January coincided with another religious celebration, the Baptism of Christ by St John the Baptist, who was Florence’s patron saint. But Renaissance Florence was also a prosperous centre of banking and trade, and the manufacture of luxury goods, and it was populated by wealthy and powerful men who sought to articulate religious devotion through association with the Magi. The Washington Adoration was probably in the collection of the powerful Medici family, who established their position in Florence through banking. They were prominent devotees of the Magi, and they were enormously influential, not least through their cultural patronage.  

Cosimo de’ Medici (1389–1464) spent vast amounts of money on artistic and architectural projects in Florence. He sponsored the renovation of San Marco during the 1430s and 1440s, commissioning Fra Angelico to paint frescoes throughout the Dominican convent where he was based. Cosimo even had his own personal cell in San Marco, which was painted with an Adoration of the Magi, perhaps by a young Benozzo Gozzoli (c.1421–1497), who was then an assistant to Fra Angelico. San Marco was dedicated, as we might expect, to St Mark, and also to the early Christian martyrs Cosmas and Damian, who were patron saints of Cosimo de’ Medici. But the newly renovated building was ceremonially dedicated not on the feast of St Mark, but on the feast of the Magi, on 6 January 1443.  

The Confraternity of the Magi  

San Marco was the centre of devotion to the Magi in Renaissance Florence. The confraternity of the Magi, which met at San Marco, was a lay religious group whose members included the Medici family. Confraternities would meet regularly for worship and prayer, and would often perform charitable works. Their membership transcended some of the traditional divides of Renaissance Florence, with artisans and tradesmen meeting together alongside bankers, doctors, and lawyers.  

One of the most important activities of the confraternity of the Magi was the organisation of festive processions in honour of the Magi on Epiphany. Florentine citizens would perform as the Magi and their retinue, processing across the city in elaborate costumes, a rare opportunity to diverge from the strict regulations known as sumptuary laws that dictated who could wear what in everyday life. The architectural fabric of Florence was also incorporated into the procession. Herod’s palace was represented by the Baptistery, opposite the Cathedral, or by the Palazzo della Signoria, the seat of Florentine government which was later known as the Palazzo Vecchio. The ceremonial route of the procession wound its way through Florence, past the Medici palace on the Via Larga (now Via Cavour), to its destination in “Bethlehem”, which was (of course) San Marco.  

Epiphany was not the only time when Florentine citizens took part in processions honouring the Magi. They were also incorporated into the elaborate festivities associated with the feast of St John the Baptist, Florence’s patron saint, which lasted for several days in late June and often included extravagant processions. A Florentine chronicler, whose writings were published and discussed by the art historian Rab Hatfield, recounted the procession of the Magi during the feast of St John the Baptist in 1428, describing “eight horses, covered with silk, with eight pages dressed in silk and with pearls and heraldic ornaments and with shields, their faces angelic, riding one after the other with their livery. And after them, on a great and beautiful horse, came an old man with a white beard, dressed in a gold brocade of crimson and a peaked cap of crimson full of large pearls and with other ornaments of the greatest value, like a king such as those among the Christians.” 

Similarly, celebration of the feast of the Magi on Epiphany also embraced broader aspects of Florentine civic devotion. The same chronicler who recounted the feast of St John the Baptist described a multitude of performative themes during the celebration of Epiphany in 1429: “And after lunch there were about seven hundred costumed men on horseback, among whom were the three Magi and their retinue, honourably dressed. And of the striking things they had with them, there were three giants and a wild man and, upon a car, a man impersonating David, who killed the giant with the sling.” It is hard not to read the description of this procession, with giants and a representation of David riding a festive float, and not imagine a scene like the Triumph of David by Pesellino (1422–1457), currently in the National Gallery’s exhibition devoted to this Florentine artist.

Given the traditional association of the Magi with the Three Ages of Man, it is no coincidence that Gozzoli portrayed three generations of the Medici family among the followers of the Magi. 

The Journey and Adoration of the Magi 

The broader visual and material culture of these festive processions informed how Florentine artists designed their paintings, and how contemporary viewers responded to them. There are many fifteenth-century Florentine paintings of the Adoration of the Magi in our galleries and museums. In the National Gallery in London, there are similar bustling scenes of devotion in Botticelli’s Adoration of the Kings (another tondo) of around 1470–1475 and an Adoration by Botticelli and Filippino Lippi (the son of Filippo) from the same period. 

One of the most well-known paintings of the Magi from Renaissance Florence was painted on the walls of the Medici Palace chapel in 1459 by Benozzo Gozzoli, the same artist who probably painted the Adoration of the Magi in Cosimo’s personal cell at San Marco. Gozzoli’s frescoes in the Medici Palace chapel represent not the Adoration of the Magi, but the Journey of the Magi, with Caspar, Balthasar, and Melchior on horseback, winding their way towards Bethlehem through the landscape depicted on the walls of the chapel. The Magi are accompanied by a vast retinue of followers, which includes portraits of the Medici family and their allies, including Cosimo de’ Medici, his adult son, Piero (1416–1469), and his grandson, Lorenzo (1449–1492). Given the traditional association of the Magi with the Three Ages of Man, it is no coincidence that Gozzoli portrayed three generations of the Medici family among the followers of the Magi, tying the religious narrative to the contemporary realities of Florentine life.  

The altarpiece in the Medici Palace chapel was painted by Filippo Lippi, who painted at least part of the Washington Adoration of the Magi. The original altarpiece is now in Berlin, and the painting currently displayed in the chapel is a fifteenth-century copy. It represents the Adoration of the Christ Child with the Infant St John the Baptist (Florence’s patron saint) and St Bernard of Clairvaux (the medieval saint to whom the chapel in the Palazzo della Signoria, the seat of Florentine government, was dedicated). Although the altarpiece had a definitive religious function, the inclusion of those two saints was also distinctly political. But the Magi are not shown in adoration before the Virgin and Child in Filippo Lippi’s altarpiece, nor does Gozzoli show them at their destination in his frescoes. We are left with their journey towards Christ. Perhaps the place of the Magi in adoration before the Virgin and Child was taken by the Medici family themselves during the performance of liturgy in the chapel. 

When we look at the processions and sumptuous costumes of the Magi in these paintings, we may recall the descriptions of contemporary processions by Florentine chroniclers. When the original viewers of these paintings looked at them, they would probably have seen them through the lens of the religious festivities that they observed and participated in on their own streets. Many of the artists who painted the works we see today in our galleries and museums also designed the ephemeral decorations for Florentine civic processions, and the relationship between art and performance would probably have been reciprocal.  

The feast of Epiphany was hugely important in fifteenth-century Florence. Delving into the history of its celebration sheds light on Renaissance paintings of the Magi, reminding us that the visual and material culture of religious imagery in this period expanded with exuberance beyond churches and palaces throughout the city’s streets. As we consider the significance of Epiphany in these cold, dark days of early January, we can remember the festivities that accompanied the feast of the Magi in Renaissance Florence, and the ways in which the paintings of the Magi that we see in our museums, galleries, churches, and chapels reflect a much broader visual and material culture of civic devotion. 


Further reading:  

Cristina Acidini Luchinat, The Chapel of the Magi: Benozzo Gozzoli’s Frescoes in the Palazzo Medici-Riccardi, Florence (London: Thames & Hudson, 1994) 

Diane Cole Ahl, Benozzo Gozzoli (New Haven and London: Yale University Press, 1996) 

Rab Hatfield, ‘The Compagnia de’ Magi’, Journal of the Warburg and Courtauld Institutes, vol.33, 1970, pp.107-161 

Dale Kent, Cosimo de’ Medici and the Florentine Renaissance: The Patron’s Oeuvre (New Haven and London: Yale University Press, 2000) 

Jeffrey Ruda, ‘The National Gallery Tondo of the “Adoration of the Magi” and the Early Style of Filippo Lippi’, Studies in the History of Art, vol.7, 1975, pp.6-39