DETROIT — If anyone in the Metro area can speak with authority on the subject of St. Nicholas, the prototype for the better-known figure of Santa Claus, it would arguably be Fr. Joseph Marquis.
In fact, before he became a priest, Fr. Marquis was pretty close to being the authentic Santa for many thousands of Detroit-area children. Sure, there were Santas at suburban malls and ones who could be hired for children’s Christmas parties, but they didn’t fool many kids.
Most Detroiters of a certain age can testify that, when they were kids, the “real” Santa was the one they went to see at J.L. Hudson’s big store in downtown Detroit, the one who arrived on the final float of the Thanksgiving Day Parade, welcomed to Hudson’s on live television by Christmas Carol and given the key to the city by the mayor.
He also portrayed Santa with The Four Tops and the Detroit Symphony Orchestra, and is a member of the Santa Claus Hall of Fame in Santa Claus, Ind.
One might even say playing Santa Claus is in his blood, or as Fr. Marquis puts it: “After a while, you get red and green corpuscles.”
A late vocation, Fr. Marquis entered seminary after his glory days as Hudson’s Santa, and has now been a priest for seven years. He serves as pastor of Sacred Heart (Byzantine) Parish in Livonia.
The St. Nicholas Institute was created to harmonize with the Year of Faith, Fr. Marquis said.
“We’re about getting back to basics in order to reclaim the historical figure behind the popular image of Santa Claus,” Fr. Marquis said, adding that St. Nicholas lived from 270 to 343 A.D., dying on Dec. 6, which remains his feast day.
But it was the bishop’s anonymous generosity that forever was to associate St. Nicholas with the spirit of giving at Christmastime, he said. Born into a well-to-do family, he dispersed his fortune through acts of charity, such as supplying bags of gold to girls who couldn’t marry for lack of a dowry.
St. Nicholas had to endure hardship for his fidelity to the Christian faith, serving seven years in prison during the persecution under the Emperor Diocletian.
“But memories of his goodness outlived him, and he was venerated very early on after his death,” Fr. Marquis said.
The devotion to St. Nicholas spread, and his bones were taken for safekeeping — or stolen in what Fr. Marquis calls an act of “holy theft” — in 1097, to be re-interred in Bari, Italy.
The figure of St. Nicholas began undergoing the “extreme makeover,” as Fr. Marquis puts it, to Santa Claus largely as a result of the Protestant Reformation. His bishop’s vestments were modified into a fur-trimmed red suit, his bishop’s crozier into a candy cane.
In Holland, he became Sinter Klaas, and Dutch settlers brought him to America. And so, there he was when the practice of celebrating Christmas became widespread in the early 19th century. The Puritans and some other Protestant sects were opposed to the celebration of Christmas, so it was mostly only Catholics, Anglicans and Lutherans who observed it.
But all that began to change in the early 1800s. Fr. Marquis credits Clement Moore’s famous 1822 poem, “A Visit from St. Nicholas,” as playing a major role in promoting a Santa Claus-style image of St. Nicholas, and then editorial cartoonist Thomas Nast’s Santa Claus drawing later in the century as helping fix the image in people’s minds.
Fr. Marquis would like to see a greater awareness of the Christian roots of the popular image, and a greater understanding of the St. Nicholas story.
“But no matter what he is called, his spirit is still the same,” he said.