The Reading Room
Santa Claus in Purgatory
Though Dante Alighieri is well known for his Inferno and the fact that he was happy to include bishops, popes, and kings in it, it would surprise many readers to hear that he included Santa Claus in his infernal masterpiece too.
It is St. Nicholas rather than today's modern Santa Claus who appears in Dante's Divine Comedy, and he is not included in Dante’s Inferno, but his far less damnable canticle, Purgatorio, whose seven terraces lie deep in the unknown Southern Hemisphere of 14th century Europe. In those terraces, repented sinners are punished for one of the seven deadly sins at a time: pride, envy, wrath, sloth, avarice, gluttony, and lust. Lest my readers worry, Saint Nicholas is not being punished. Rather, he is set as a model for the repenting souls in Purgatory.
On the fifth terrace of Purgatory, that of avarice (and prodigality as Statius later tells us), the souls yell out expiating examples of poverty and generosity which, through the medium of art, are supposed to help a reader or character in the Comedy move from a state of avarice to one of generosity, like Scrooge from A Christmas Carol. The first example on the terrace is one featuring the Virgin Mary. In fact, each terrace features Mary first in its selection of expiating art. The next example is the Roman Fabricius, famous for twice being consul (282 and 278 BCE) and for his extreme austerity. The final, example, however, features a figure that many Americans and Westerners will find familiar from contemporary songs, music, and culture in general:
These words had been so pleasing to me—Imoved forward, so that I might come to know
the spirit from whom they had seemed to come.
He kept on speaking, telling the largesseof Nicholas—the gifts he gave the maidens
so that they might be honorably wed. (Pur.20.28-33; my emphases)
Who is this Nicholas who made gifts to maidens so that they might be “honorably wed,” and what exactly was the situation from which Nicholas was saving these women? You may have guessed it, but this is the very same St. Nicholas, renowned for his charity and generosity, who serves as the model for Santa Claus and is featured in American holiday classics like Benjamin Hanby’s “Up on the Rooftop,” (1864) or Emily Huntington Miller’s “Jolly Old Saint Nicholas.” But what was it that St. Nicholas did that earned him seemingly eternal approbation for his act?
Jacobus de Voragine’s 13th century compilation of the lives of saints called The Golden Legend includes the episode for which St. Nicholas, the 4th century bishop of Myra, earned his sainthood and his fame. Though Nicholas was himself born to a wealthy family, he wished to distribute his wealth for the honor of god, rather than of the world. He honored this principle when he discovered that his impecunious neighbor had three daughters for whom he did not have enough money to provide dowries. Since the daughters could not work in any trades, and they were not appropriately dowered for marriage, they would have to turn to lives of harlotry to support themselves and their family. When Nicholas heard of this, he was rightfully horrified, and he took it upon himself to use his wealth to provide dowries for each girl to keep them from the lascivious hands of their potential patrons. Each night, for three nights, Nicholas snuck a bundle of gold into his neighbor’s house, and each day, the family would wake up and react with utter astonishment when they saw their good fortune. By doing this, Nicholas ensured that the three daughters of his neighbor would be spared a cruel and difficult life. Though he may not have snuck down a chimney those days, or stuffed the gold into socks, the legend surrounding him now brings the generosity he gave to those three young women to all the world, or so the contemporary legend of Santa goes.