Monday, December 16, 2013

Saint Nicholas : The Real Santa Claus by Chris White

A 2008 Forensic Model From Skeletal Remains

On a beautiful late spring day in 1087 a ship sailed into the port town of Bari in the southern part of Italy with a very precious cargo.  Just weeks before the ship had been in the port of Myra (modern day Finike, Turkey) on a special mission: to bring the bones of St. Nicholas to the safety of Europe.  For centuries, Christians had traveled to his shrine in Turkey because a clear, sweet smelling liquid dripped from the tomb that seemed to have miraculous powers.  In fact, in the Greek world, St. Nicholas is known as Nicholas the wonder-worker.  The taking of this holy man’s bones was seen as a necessity for 16 years before the Muslim Turks had conquered much of Asia Minor and were making things more and more difficult for Christian pilgrims; so much so that 6 years later the Pope would be calling the men of Western Europe to arms in the First Crusade.  But for now, it was time celebrate.  A new shrine for St. Nicholas was constructed on Italian soil and soon his blessings would draw flocks of pilgrims from all over Europe during the Middle Ages even as his new tomb still seemed to produce the same miraculous perfume like water it did in Asia Minor.

While Santa Claus is the delight of children the world over during the Christmas holidays, the man behind the myth is just as delightful which is why in the Christian world, St. Nicholas of Myra is second only to the Virgin Mary as the most artistically depicted saint and a popular namesake for church buildings especially in Europe and Russia.

St Nicholas (270-343 AD) was born to devoutly Christian parents by the name of Epiphanius and Johanna in Asia Minor.  They both died in an epidemic when Nicholas was quite young and he was raised by his uncle (also named Nicholas) who was a clergyman.  Although Nicholas inherited his family wealth, he was raised to become a clergyman and even as a young man was known for his piety and generosity.

When the bishop of Myra died, Nicholas was elected to take his place by popular acclaim.  By tradition Nicholas would have been between 30 and 40 by this time, but it is quite possible that he was younger as his early adult years were lived during the Roman persecution of the Church and church leaders were regularly killed leaving churches often scrambling to find new leaders.  When St. Nicholas is depicted in art it is always as an elderly man with gray hair.  This was considered an outstanding feature in those days because unlike most of his contemporaries, Nicholas had the privilege of dying of old age rather than martyrdom.  As bishop, Nicholas didn’t live a trouble free life.  In fact, when Constantine the Great (the first Christian Roman Emperor) came to power, Nicholas was still in prison for his faith and was soon set free.

 One of the most famous stories of  St.Nicholas was his intervention to help a man in poverty who had three fully grown daughters.  Unable to raise a dowry so that they could be married, out of desperation he was thinking about turning them over to prostitution (a sad fate that still happens to poor women today).  When Nicholas heard of his straits he came by this man’s house at night and threw a bag of gold coins, enough for a dowry, through a window and left undetected.  Shortly afterward the oldest daughter was engaged and married.  Nicholas came and did this for the other daughters but with the last one the father discovered Nicholas was his benefactor and profusely thanked him and made the story known.  Often Nicholas is depicted with three bags, which are the bags for the gold coins.  Another symbol used in iconography is three gold balls which incidentally were adopted by pawnbrokers as their symbol.  It probably shouldn’t surprise that Nicholas is the patron saint of among other things pawn brokers, which to my thinking makes Christmas shopping at a pawn shop seem a bit more kosher for some reason.

It is said that Nicholas was an ardent protector of the church’s orthodoxy (which is the role of a bishop) and was at the famous Council of Nicea in 325 AD where the heresy of Arianism was being tried by the Church.  As the legend goes, in his zeal for the truth Nicholas punched Arius in the mouth when he began to defend his false doctrine that Jesus was not the eternal  Son of God (obviously proving that Nicholas must have had Southern Baptist leanings as those guys are famous for fisticuffs at board meetings!).  Such actions in front of the Emperor Constantine (who was present at the time) were against the law and Nicholas was put in jail for a few days to cool his temper at the behest of his fellow bishops who were outraged at his behavior.  But this is more in the realm of legend as it appears in no contemporary accounts of the council and there is little reason to belief Constantine’s bodyguards would have even tolerated such actions.  But it is fun to imagine our dear St. Nicholas punching the lights out of a heretic nonetheless.

Many other stories abound of miracles and good deeds done to children and the less fortunate that space will not permit, but do show why he is the ideal saint for Christmas and why he has been so popular in all the major branches of Christianity for so long.  Not much is said about his end but that he died in his church, which is the religious equivalent of “dying with your boots on”.

Protestants, who recognize very few saints, pretty much abandoned the feast of St. Nicholas on December 6th (which continues to be celebrated by Catholics and Orthodox) except for the Dutch who continued to recognize him with their unique pronunciation “Sinterclaas” which came to America as “Santa Claus”.  Martin Luther, translated the tradition of gift giving on St. Nicholas day to Christmas day saying that the baby Jesus gave gifts.  The German word for the Christ child “Christkindl” also became corrupted to Kriss Kringle which again became associated as another name for St. Nicholas.

Probably the least thought about but most important thing to remember about St. Nicholas was that his life was about leading and teaching people in word and deed to follow Jesus Christ to son of God.  The person whose birth in Bethlehem we celebrate every year at Christmas.  That is the central legacy of Saint Nicholas today.

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