Friday, December 6, 2013

Good St. Nick... pray for us!

Today we get to celebrate a man who has become (in a very roundabout way) an icon of American childhood: Santa Claus. I mean the real Santa Claus: St. Nicholas of Myra.

The story of how a fourth century bishop from Asia Minor evolved into Kris Kringle is remarkable. No other Catholic saint has a similar tale because no other saint has been so morphed by popular culture nor become so deeply embedded in the popular imagination in the way that St. Nicholas has.

You've gotta admit: there are few Catholic traditions more pervasive throughout all of American culture than the jolly man in red. Over the years, "Good St. Nick" has become a symbol of the Christmas season so much so that you'd be hard-pressed to find anyone (no matter what their religious persuasion or location) who couldn't identify Santa.

Of course, the Santa Claus that is so well-known and celebrated today is now very far removed from the historical Nicholas of Myra. Let's take a quick inventory of what we know about the Santa Claus of the North Pole:

  • He spends his days in near-complete reclusion, in a remote and top-secret compound.
  • His only known human companions are a sizable population of individuals with proportionate dwarfism, who compose a highly-skilled (yet seemingly unpaid) workforce under Mr. Clause's direction. One wonders if Stockholm Syndrome may play a part in explaining this relationship.
  • He has an extensive, world-wide surveillance network, monitoring the conversations and actions of millions of people on every continent. The NSA only wishes it had his resources and abilities. 
  • He leaves his home only once per year dressed in a red, fur-trimmed suit with matching hat, and when he does, he flies around the world at break-neck speed in a custom-made sleigh powered by magical flying reindeer for the sole purpose of sneaking into people's homes during the night to deliver presents to people he doesn't even know.

That is Santa Claus: a voyeuristic recluse who's particularly fond of people of short stature, and who displays an obsessive eccentricity in lavish gift-giving.

If that is Santa, who, then, is St. Nicholas?

The man that we honor today as St. Nicholas was a man far afield from mass consumerism and the North Pole. The real St. Nicholas dressed in a Roman-style tunical or casula instead of a red fur coat. He almost certainly never saw a reindeer in his life and, according to the stories of his ministry as a bishop, was a man with a soft spot for the poor and with little patience for heretics. 

As with most early saints, we don't know a whole lot about Nicholas' early years. 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 from a young age. Tradition records that Nicholas was the only child of wealthy parents but that 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).

By the first decades of the fourth century, Nicholas was the bishop of Myra (now known as Demre), on the Mediterranean coast of present-day Turkey. He led his local congregation through some 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, a priest in the city of Alexandria, Egypt, 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) but Arius' teachings soon began to spread among the churches of the Roman Empire. Where the teachings of Arian were sewed, sharp division took root in the Church.

In 325, the Emperor Constantine called the Church's bishops to meet in council in the city of Nicaea to make a formal decision on the teachings of Arius. Was Arianism the Catholic faith or was it not?

One story records that one day during the Council at Nicaea, Arius himself stood in front of the assembled bishops and the emperor to try and convince them that Christ was homoiousious (of a similar nature) instead of homoousious (of the same nature) as God the Father. As Arius spoke, one bishop stood up, calmly walked over to Arius and slapped him across the face in front of everyone. That bishop was Nicholas.

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.