Tuesday, December 6, 2011

Would the real St. Nicholas please stand up?

Today we get to celebrate the icon of American childhood: Santa Claus. The real Santa Claus.

There are few Catholic traditions more pervasive throughout all of American culture than the man in red. In the past century, he has become a well-known symbol of the Christmas season and you'd be hard-pressed to find someone (no matter what their religious persuasions) who couldn't identify Santa.

We know all about him, right? He lives at the North Pole. He wears a red, furry suit. He hangs out with elves and rides a flying sleigh pulled by reindeer. And - most importantly - he sneaks into people's homes during the night before Christmas, and delivers presents. That last part is a little creepy when you really think about it... but I digress.

So who is the real Santa Claus? Well, truth is, the idea of Santa is based on a man who lived many centuries ago and wasn't all gingerbread and sugar plums. Instead, it seems that he was one tough cookie with a soft heart for the poor. His dress? Almost certainly not a red, fur-trimed suit. Instead, he wore the normal dress of fourth century men of his region - a tunical or a casula. And his home? Far from roaming reindeer or the snow of the North Pole - it was a town on the Mediterranean coast in modern-day Turkey. One thing that might be familiar: he probably did have a beard. His name was Nicholas.

As with most early saints, we don't know a whole lot about Nicholas. He was likely born around the year 270 in the city of Patara in Asia Minor (modern-day Turkey). Stories that have been preserved throughout the centuries, tell of a man who took his Catholic faith very seriously. Tradition records that Nicholas was the only child of wealthy parents. His parents died when he was a child - victims of an epidemic in the region, and Nicholas was raised by a devout uncle (also named Nicholas) who led the young man to be very active in the Church from an early age.

By the first decades of the fourth century, Nicholas was the bishop of Myra (now known as Demre), on the Mediterranean coast of Turkey. He led his local congregation through difficult years of the Diocletian Persecution - the most widespread and deadliest of the Roman persecutions against the Church. In 325, Nicholas participated at the Council of Nicaea - the first ecumenical (i.e. worldwide) council of the Church's bishops. There, Nicholas was numbered among the bishops, priests and deacons (including many who had been maimed during the last persecution), in a meeting called by the Roman Emperor Constantine to address the Arian teachings which were spreading through the Church at the time.

Arius was a priest in the city of Alexandria, Egypt - an important city for the Church at that time. He taught that God the Father existed before, and was superior to, the Son. This was not "the faith once delivered to the saints" and passed down from the Apostles (Jude 1:3). It was a novelty, but a popular one which was quickly spreading throughout the Roman Empire and sewing division in the Church. Constantine called the Church's bishops to Nicaea to make a formal decision on the teachings of Arius.

One story records that Arius stood in front of the assembled bishops and the emperor himself, and explained his teaching that Christ was homoiousious (of a similar nature) instead of homoousious (of the same nature) as God the Father. As he explained his position, one bishop - Nicholas - stood up, calmly walked over to Arius and slapped him across the face in front of everyone.

Nicholas lays the smack down on Arius at the Council of Nicaea.
Yes, Nicholas took his faith very seriously.

Another well-known story about Nicholas tells of how, while he was Bishop of Myra, he heard about a poor widower in the town who had three daughters for whom he could not afford to pay a dowry. This, of course, meant that they would not be married and, in that time and culture, had a very uncertain future. Nicholas took it upon himself to remedy this situation in a clever way that would preserve Nicholas' modesty and would protect the man from the humiliation of having to receive charity. In the dark of night, Nicholas tossed three pouches of gold coins into the open window of the man's home and then snuck away in the darkness. The coins were just enough to pay the dowry for each of the man's daughters. The man caught up with Nicholas and thanked him, but Nicholas modestly told the man to thank God alone and asked him not to tell others about his act of anonymous generosity. (By the way - if you've ever noticed the symbol of the three gold balls that many pawn shops use, it comes from this story - St. Nicholas is the patron saint of pawn brokers). 

From this story, it is easy to see how St. Nicholas became associated with gift-giving. In fact, it is on the night before this day (not the night of December 24th) when many children in Europe receive gifts "from St. Nicholas." Here in the United States, the Dutch version of St. Nicholas, Sint Nicolaas, and its abbreviated form, Sinterklaas, became corrupted into the now familiar Santa Claus. Clement C. Moore's famous poem, A Visit From St. Nicholas (you know: "T'was the night before Christmas..."), first published in 1823, went a long way to spread the popularity (and form the American version) of a jolly man who visits children during the Christmas season, bringing them gifts. You can also thank some great illustrations and advertising from the 19th and 20th centuries, which have cemented our American ideas about who Santa Claus is and what he looks like.

Interestingly, we may have a really good idea about what the real St. Nicholas looked like. In 2005, the remains of St. Nicholas - which had been "translated" (i.e. moved) from his original tomb in Myra to Bari, Italy in 1087, after the Muslim Turks took over control of Myra - revealed that he stood barely 5 feet tall and, at one point, had suffered a broken nose. Based on the measurements of his bones, forensic scientists created a computer-generated image of what St. Nicholas might have looked like. (see below)

In any case, on a day like today, it's best to celebrate this great saint of the Church by emulating his actions. Do something nice for someone, anonymously. Help someone in need, anonymously. Do it for the glory of God and the good of your soul. And be like St. Nick!

Forensic reconstruction of St. Nicholas, based on his skull.