Thursday, December 5, 2013

Jolly Ol' St. Nick

"St. Nicholas the Wonderworker" is beloved by Christians of both East and West. This saintly man was born in the third century in the town of Patara, which is in present-day Turkey. The only child of his wealthy parents, they died young due to an epidemic, and Nicholas gave all the wealth and property that he inherited to the poor. A devout Christian, he was made bishop of Myra at a young age; strong in his faith, he would suffer exile and imprisonment under the persecutions of Emperors Diocletian and Maximian. Whether in prison or ministering to his diocese, Nicholas was an active and tireless shepherd to his flock. In 325, the Council of Nicaea was called to deal with a rupture in the Church; Arius was a priest from North Africa who taught that Jesus Christ was not God, but was instead God's most perfect creation. This confusion grew from Arius' home in North Africa and spread throughout the Christian world; passions ran so strongly that fights would break out and there was a real danger that the heresy would divide the Church and destroy the faith. Finally obtaining political stability, Emperor Constantine didn't want to replace civil strife with religious strife, so he implored the bishops of the Church to gather together and settle the matter once and for all. Most attendees of the Council were from the East, although some in the West attended with the blessings of Pope St. Sylvester I; about 300 bishops attended altogether, many of them crippled and disfigured after surviving the last persecutions.

Nicholas at the First Council of Nicaea

The issue of the divinity of Jesus was hotly debated: was Christ God? Was he just a man? Was he both true God and true man? Arius was asked to present his teachings to the Council - perhaps once the Council Fathers heard what he had to say, they would all come to agree with his personal interpretation. Arius' teachings explained that Jesus Christ was a creation of God, that he is not consubstantial (of the same substance) with the Father, and therefore not like him or equal in dignity; Jesus was not co-eternal, and references to him being the "Son" of God were merely a figure of speech. Upon hearing these teachings, Nicholas approached Arius and struck him in the face! For his outburst, Nicholas was removed from the Council proceedings and from his episcopal duties until several Council Fathers experienced a vision of Jesus and Mary having sympathy for him.

The First Council of Nicaea would condemn the heresy of Arianism and its decrees, in part, form the basis of the Nicene Creed, which is still recited in the Catholic and Orthodox Churches almost 1,700 years later. (In 381, another Council held in Constantinople would "finish" the Nicene Creed by addressing a similar heresy that denied the divinity of the Holy Spirit). Sadly, Arianism plagued the Church for another 400 years before finally disappearing, but resurfacing once again in several sects of the Protestant Reformation. In my own opinion, I think Arianism is starting to spread again - this idea in the West that Jesus was a great guy with some wonderful teachings, but nothing more than that...just a man.

St. Nicholas would continue to live a life of holiness and charity, fulfilling his duties as bishop before passing away from this life on December 6, 343; his relics are interred in the church of San Nicola in Bari, Italy. Because of his reputation for charity and holiness, many stories abounded throughout the land; one famous story is of St. Nicholas bringing gifts to a poor man with three daughters. In those days one needed a dowry to marry and the better the dowry, (usually) the better the husband and standard of living. Since this man couldn't afford any dowries for his daughters, they were destined to a life of slavery or destitution and begging. One night, three bags of gold coins were tossed through the man's open window, landing in shoes that had been placed by the fire to dry overnight. Now having the dowries, the women would not have to suffer injustice any longer. This act of charity, attributed to Nicholas, evolved into the tradition of children in Germany, Switzerland, and the Netherlands leaving their shoes or stockings out on December 6 so that St. Nicholas can fill them with chocolate coins or small gifts. In Poland and parts of Germany, children dress up as the saint and beg door-to-door for donations for the poor. While most of Europe marks St. Nicholas Day on December 6, in the United State, Great Britain, and elsewhere, the tradition of St. Nicholas' visit was moved to Christmas Eve after he was replaced by the more secular Santa Claus.

Who is Santa Claus?

So, how did a bishop of the Church eventually become the secular Santa Claus? After all, he was highly revered in the East and West for roughly 1,200 years: in the year 1126 the Vikings dedicated a cathedral to him in Greenland in the city of Garðar; on Columbus' first voyage, he dedicated a port in Haiti to the saint (Môle-Saint-Nicolas); the city of Jacksonville, FL was originally named St. Nicholas Ferry by the Spaniards! So what changed? Sadly, the Protestant Reformation is what changed. Protestants have a different understanding of the communion of saints than what Catholics and the Orthodox believe; in most Protestant faith traditions, feast days of saints were perceived to be something superstitious and from Rome, so they were usually rejected. Thus, since the United States was founded mostly by Protestants, our nation didn't grow up with a history of St. Nicholas visiting children on December 6.

However, in the early 1800s a nostalgia & curiosity grew in New York for "the old days" when the Mid-Atlantic was a Dutch colony. Rediscovering the history of the area, many people longed for books and paintings that had to do with Dutch culture and traditions (like St. Nicholas, or as the Dutch called him, Sinterklaas). Authors like Washington Irving created stories involving a new version of St. Nicholas that didn't really resemble the bishop from Turkey at all; this is where the legend originated of St. Nicholas coming down the chimney. On December 6, 1810, an artist was commissioned to create the first American drawing of St. Nicholas, and the saint was drawn putting presents into children's stockings hung by the fireplace.

In 1821, a book was released in America that told of "Sante Claus" who arrived from the north on a sleigh pulled by flying reindeer. In 1823, the modern conception of Santa was further developed with the release of the poem T'was the Night Before Christmas. Throughout the rest of the 1800s and into the modern era, Santa would be portrayed in magazines and newspapers as a fat man with a long, white beard, red suit, clay pipe, and large sack of toys for children. He lived at the North Pole and came in a big red sleigh pulled by eight reindeer (nine, if you count Rudolph). Although Christmas was a holiday in the Catholic & Orthodox world, most American Protestants - influenced by the English Puritans - didn't celebrate it until the 1850s (more about this in a future posting). However, as the holiday took on more and more secular tones (and less Catholic ones), many Americans started to warm up to the idea of celebrating Christmas. Today it is very common to see this secularized version of Christmas, created in the United States, celebrated throughout the world...and the most familiar "icon" of the entire holiday is jolly ol' St. Nick - Santa Claus.

For more information on the real St. Nicholas, please consider checking out the St. Nicholas Center, which has a large collection of biographical and historical information on St. Nick and the various traditions and celebrations connected with this patron saint of children, sailors, prisoners (and those wrongly condemned), and of women hoping for marriage. St. Nicholas, pray for us!