Tuesday, December 6, 2016

Saint Nicholas (a.k.a.,"Santa Claus")

For several years, while I was parochial vicar at the Paulist Mother Church in NYC, I had the joy of playing "Saint Nicholas" (a.k.a. "Santa Claus") at the annual Winter's Eve celebration coinciding with Lincoln Center's Tree Lighting on the Monday after Thanksgiving. That's a picture of me in my "Saint Nicholas" costume - a kind of generic Bishop outfit, plus a big white beard. I doubt too many people really thought I was Saint Nicholas. And I can remember at least one kid making a point of telling me, "I know who you are." But it was all good fun, and it created an opportunity to tell the story of the real Saint Nicholas, whose feast the Church celebrates today and whose upcoming Christmas visit - under his now better known identity as "Santa Clause" - countless kids are eagerly awaiting.

The historical Saint Nicholas (270-343) was a Greek-speaking Christian from Asia Minor, who became bishop of Myra in 317, and attended the Ecumenical Council of Nicea in 325, at which he was one of the signatories of the original Nicene Creed. Legend has it that at that council he punched the heretic Arius in the face! Not quite yet Clement C. Moore's broad face, and a little round belly That shook when he laugh’d, like a bowl full of jelly.

In 1087, Italian sailors stole most of his relics and brought them to Bari, where they remain, while some of his relics made it to Venice. Hence he is patron of sailors. But much more importantly in terms of his long-term influence and significance he is also patron saint of children.

Jacobus de Vorqagine's 13th-century Legenda Aurea (The Golden Legend) recounts several famous stories of Saint Nicholas' generous acts of charity, the most famous probably being his anonymously throwing three sums of gold into the house of a man with three daughters, who as a result was now able to provide dowries and arrange good marriages for them. 

Thanks to such stories, Saint Nicholas acquired a reputation for generous gift-giving that continued after his death - often ritualized in coins or gifts put by him in the shoes children had left out for him overnight. From shoes it was not much of a leap to filling stockings hanging on a mantlepiece (or under the Christmas Tree for those of us who grew up in apartments without fireplaces)! His modern American name "Santa Claus" clearly comes from the Dutch "Sinterklaas," whose popularity survived the Reformation and came with the Dutch settlers to old New York.

Like almost everything about our contemporary Christmas, Santa Claus can be dismissed as simply a smiling face camouflaging the rapaciousness of capitalism. That said, and duly acknowledging the damage capitalism and business have done to both Christmas and Saint Nicholas, there remains something immensely inviting about the generous figure of Santa Claus - all that much more so when we recall his saintly origin and the religious roots of his generosity.

So may Santa Claus continue to bring joy to children all over the world, and may the real Saint Nicholas lead them to the true gift-giver, whose birth and generosity in coming to save us ultimately define Christmas!

But I heard him exclaim, ere he drove out of sight — 
Happy Christmas to all, and to all a good night.


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