For several years, back when I was a parish priest here, I got to play "Saint Nicholas" (photo) at the annual Winter's Eve celebration coinciding with the Lincoln Center Tree Lighting on the Monday after Thanksgiving. (As pioneer in the role, I got to design the costume myself - a kind of generic Bishop outfit, plus a big white artificial beard.) I am sure that anyone who already knew me recognized me, but that wasn't the point, which was to retell the story of the real Saint Nicholas (270-343), whose feast the Church celebrates today and whose upcoming Christmas visit - under his now better known identity as "Santa Claus" - countless kids are eagerly awaiting.
The historical Saint Nicholas was a Greek-speaking Christian from Asia Minor (today Turkey), 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 his relics and brought them to Bari, where they remain, while some of his relics made it to Venice. Hence he is sometimes also venerated as "Saint Nicholas of Bari" as well as his historically correct title, "Saint Nicholas of Myra." Hence he is also the patron saint of sailors. (He is also the patron of Greece and Russia, of bankers, pawnbrokers, perfumers, brides, unmarried women, travelers, fishermen, dockworkers, and brewers.) But most importantly in terms of his long-term influence and secular significance he is also patron saint of children.
The 13th-century 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 commercialized contemporary Christmas, Santa Claus can be dismissed as simply a smiling face camouflaging the rapaciousness of predatory consumer capitalism. That said, and duly acknowledging the damage capitalism and business have done not just to Christmas but to the climate, the environment, and the prospects for human flourishing on this planet, 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!
Homily for the feast of Saint Nicholas, Saint Paul the Apostle Church, New York, December 6, 2021.
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