Skip to comments.St. Nicholas belongs in any reclamation of Christmas
Posted on 12/06/2003 10:41:08 AM PST by Destro
St. Nicholas belongs in any reclamation of Christmas
By Terry Mattingly, Scripps Howard News Service
December 6, 2003
The bureaucrats charged with turning Russia into a godless utopia had a December dilemma and a big part of their problem was St. Nicholas.
The early Communists needed to purge Christmas of its savior, sacraments and beloved symbols, including this patron saint of widows and children. What they needed was a faith-free icon for a safe, secular New Year's season. Digging into pre-Christian Slavic legends, they found their superman - Father Frost.
"It's so ironic," said the Rev. James Parker III of Louisville, Ky. In order to wrest control of Christmas, "one of the things the Communists had to do was to get people to forget the real St. Nicholas. ... Here in America we've forgotten all about the real St. Nicholas because he has turned into this Santa Claus guy. It's like we're taking a different route to the same place."
It would not be unusual to hear Eastern Orthodox, Catholic or Anglican clergy voice these sentiments in the days leading to Dec. 6, the feast day of St. Nicholas, the fourth-century bishop of Myra in Asia Minor. Parker, however, is associate dean at Southern Baptist Theological Seminary. Still, he is convinced it's time for more churches - even Southern Baptist churches - to embrace the real St. Nicholas.
"I have often wondered how a Martian reporter would do a story on Christmas," he wrote in a Baptist Press commentary. "If one only had the dominant cultural icons of TV, movies, news media and retail stores, my guess is that the Martian viewing audience wouldn't have a clue as to what Christmas was about.
"They might think it had something to do with snowmen or reindeer or retail-store sales. And if any particular person rose to the top in the public's conscious awareness, it would be a jolly secular guy at risk for stroke or cardiac arrest who liked to dress in red and let his beard grow."
Rather than whine about what has happened to St. Nicholas, more churches need to "remythologize" this hero of the faith, said Parker.
Little solid historical information is known about Nicholas, except that he was born into a wealthy family and, after the early death of his pious parents, he entered a monastery and became a bishop. Some early writers claim he participated in the Council of Nicea and, when theological debate failed, that he punched a heretic who argued that Jesus was not fully divine.
"The mental image of Santa Claus punching out Arius ... has to fundamentally change the way one would ever see Santa Claus again," said Parker. "While I might not agree with his methods, I certainly admire his passion for Christological orthodoxy."
Nicholas was imprisoned under the Emperor Diocletian, tortured and then hailed as a "confessor" because he refused to renounce his faith. He was released under Constantine and died around A.D. 350.
Another detail in accounts of his life is that Nicholas gave away his inheritance helping the poor. One famous icon shows him taking small bags of gold to parents who could not provide dowries for their daughters, which meant they could not marry. Thus, the bishop would rescue the girls from lives as slaves or prostitutes by dropping gold coins through their windows during the night. These gifts often fell into their stockings, which were hung up to dry.
This unforgettable image was especially popular with children. Through the centuries, this story blended with other legends in other lands. The result was Father Christmas, Pere Noel and many others, including Sinter Klaas, who came with the Dutch to New York City.
Now Santa is everywhere, the smiling face on one of American culture's most popular exports - the holiday season formerly known as Christmas.
"In the circles that I run in, people can get pretty worked up about things like this," said Parker. "These are the people who keep saying that they want to put Christ back into Christmas. So while they're doing that, why not put the real St. Nicholas back into the picture as well. He was a bishop. He cared for the poor. He was a great Christian leader who defended the faith.
"That's all good, isn't it? Wouldn't it be good to reclaim that?"
My understanding of the Nicaean council is that no one argued the divinity of Jesus, full or otherwise. Instead, they quibbled over whether he had been divine for all eternity, co-existent with God, or had achieved divinity within temporal constraints, after the fact. They were torturing and burning each other at the stake for many years afterward, over the same quibbling point.
Little known fact: Terry Mattingly , whose article appears above and in 400 newspapers' religion sections, is Orthodox Christian, and we met him at our church a couple of years ago!
The St Nick legend was spun by the Church in the 9th century when they needed a Christmas god to replace the true Lord of the Winter Festival, the YuleFather Odin.
Some say St. Nicholas existed only in legend, without any reliable historical record. Legends usually do grow out of real, actual events, though they may be embellished to make more interesting stories. Many of the St. Nicholas stories seem to be truth interwoven with imagination. However, the following facts of the life of St. Nicholas could contain some part of historical truth. They provide a clear sense of his personal characteristics which are further elaborated in other narratives.
Nicholas' birth in Patara
Though the exact date is not known, it is believed to have occurred between 260 and 280 AD. The place, Patara, can be historically grounded.
Dowries for the poor girls
This story can be regarded as historical in its essence. There are three very ancient accounts which only differ in regard to the number of maidens and other detail. This event reveals important aspects of St. Nicholas's personality, namely, his charitable nature and humility.
Popular election as Bishop of Myra
Unusual though it was for a layman to be nominated to the position of bishop, two sources corroborate the story.
Participation in the Council of Nicaea
Although Bishop Nicholas does not appear on all lists of attenders, his name appears on the oldest Greek list and on five other lists.
Saving three condemned innocents
This story is the oldest and most genuine recorded episode from the life of St. Nicholas. Historical documentation confirms the many references to place names and people. Some versions expand the account to include the story of the three generals.
Intervention in favor of the unjustly jailed
The outstanding figures in this solidly structured story are well known in other contemporary accounts, where they are portrayed in similar ways.
Destruction of the Temple of Artemis
This account reveals knowledge of detail concerning the temple which would have been unknown to a writer several centuries later had it not been based on an account coming out of the people and traditions of that city.
Mariners saved during a tempest
The episode is important to explain the origin of his wide-spread patronage to sailors and other sea voyagers.
The ancient sources cited to substantiate this information are Michael the Archimandrite, Sinaitic and Ethiopian manuscripts, Gratianus' Decretum, Theodore the Lector, Andrew of Crete, Eustratios of Constantinople, 583 AD; Passionarium Romanum, 650 AD; and Praxis de tributo.
Cioffari, P. Gerardo, O.P., "The Truth About Saint Nicholas: The Most Ancient Texts in the Light of Recent Historical Criticism," Bollettino di San Nicola, November-December 1997
Cioffari, P. Gerardo, O.P., Saint Nicholas: His Life, the Translation of his Relics and his Basilica in Bari, translated by Philip L. Barnes, Centro Studi Nicolaiani, Bari, Italy, 1994
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