Tuesday, December 20, 2005

Old Saint Nick

December 6 marks Saint Nicholas Day as he is one of the most popular saints in the Greek and Latin church.

Some say St. Nicholas existed only in legend, without any reliable historical record. Legends do usually grow from real, actual events, however embellished to make more interesting stories. That said, I do believe that some facts of the life of St. Nicholas certainly contain at least some part of historical truth interwoven with great imagination and provide a sense of the man's personal character as well.

Given the super power of Santa Claus on the matter of gifts, children are sure to be good (for at least a week) and leave Santa some yummy cookies and milk out on Christmas Eve. While this tradition is timeless and schweet, most children don't know that there is much more to Saint Nick than cookies and presents. Perhaps those of us who are in disagreement on which version to share with children should strike a compromise and share the ancient tales with older children who have outgrown the mysterious and jolly guy who lands on roof tops with a "Ho! Ho! Ho!" (I'm trying hard to not give any secrets away here because I'm suspicious that a few of you aren't quite there yet haha). In any case, I like the ancient tales and will repeat them at every opportunity, and am unstoppable in this endeavor.

Moving on...

Ancient biographers tell us that Saint Nicholas was born to wealthy parents in the city of Patara (what is now Turkey) about 270 AD (the exact date is not known, it is believed to have occurred between AD 260 and 280). While he was still young his mother and father died and left him a fortune. Nicholas was said to have used this inheritance to benefit others, especially children. Called the Wonderworker, he was obviously well known for generosity to children, hence the legend of Santa. The story of a benevolent soul giving gifts to children is a part of many cultures with many names. Saint Nick and Santa Claus as other names for Saint Nicholas continues to this day.

The story of the dowries for three poor girls-

There are three very ancient and very similar accounts of this. This event reveals significant aspects of the saint's personality, most importantly, his charitable giving and humility in so doing.

As a teen, Nicholas' kind nature was evident as upon hearing of a destitute and starving family (the father having no money for food, much less the dowry needed to marry off his three daughters), Nicholas threw a bag of gold coins through the window of their humble dwelling under the cover of night. In the morning the father discovered the gold and rejoiced. His family was saved, his daughter's honor preserved, and a dowry for her marriage secured. Some time after, Nicholas secretly provided a dowry for the second and the third daughter as well.

As the story goes, on the third occasion, the girls' father stood watching. As soon as the bag of gold landed on the floor he chased after the young man and caught up with him. Nicholas, who was mortified at having been discovered in his act of charity, made the father promise to tell not a soul who had helped his family (obviously someone told but that's not the point, the point is the humility of the act).

The bags of gold are said to have landed in stockings or shoes left by the fire to dry and this led to the custom of hanging stockings, children eagerly awaiting gifts from Saint Nicholas and how he became known as the gift-giver.

There are many more stories featuring Saint Nicholas that I'm not going to actually tell due to time but will list some personal favorites that can be found on the web to point any interested readers into the right direction.

*The story of how Saint Nicholas became the Bishop of Myra-
Nicholas became the Bishop of Myra in Turkey, playing an important leadership role in the church. Unusual as it was for a layman to be nominated to the position of bishop, two sources corroborate this story.

*The story of how Saint Nicholas Participated in the Council of Nicaea-
While Bishop Nicholas does not appear on all lists of attenders, his name does appear on the oldest Greek list and five other lists as well.

*The story of how Saint Nicholas saved three condemned innocents-
This is the oldest and most genuine recorded event from the life of Saint Nicholas. Historical documentation confirms the many references to place names and people (some versions expanding the account to include the story of the three generals.)

*The story of how Saint Nicholas intervened in favor of the unjustly jailed-
The interesting figures in this story are well known in other modern accounts where they are portrayed in similar ways as well.

*The story of the destruction of the temple of Artemis-
This account reveals a great knowledge of detail concerning the temple. This 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 particular city.

So, exactly how did a kind and humble Christian saint become the jolly red-suited American symbol for a merry and festive Christmas, not to mention much commercial activity, you might ask (or maybe not, but I'm still telling you).

From the Saint Nicholas Center,

"After the American Revolution, New Yorkers remembered with pride the colony's nearly-forgotten Dutch roots. John Pintard, influential patriot and antiquarian, who founded the New York Historical Society in 1804, promoted St. Nicholas as patron saint of both society and city. In January 1809, Washington Irving joined the society and on St. Nicholas Day that year he published the satirical fiction, Knickerbocker's History of New York, which made numerous references to a jolly St. Nicholas character. This was not a saintly bishop, rather an elfin Dutch burgher with a clay pipe. These delightful flights of imagination are the origin of the New Amsterdam St. Nicholas legends: that the first Dutch emigrant ship had a figurehead of St. Nicholas; that St. Nicholas Day was observed in the colony; that the first church was dedicated to him: and that St. Nicholas comes down chimneys to bring gifts. Irving's work was regarded as the "first notable work of imagination in the New World."

The New York Historical Society held its first St. Nicholas anniversary dinner on December 6, 1810. John Pintard commissioned artist Alexander Anderson to create the first American image of Nicholas for the occasion. Nicholas was shown in a gift-giving role with children's treats in stockings hanging at a fireplace. The accompanying poem ends, "Saint Nicholas, my dear good friend! To serve you ever was my end, If you will, now, me something give, I'll serve you ever while I live."

The jolly elf image received a big boost in 1823, from a poem destined to become immensely popular, "A Visit from St. Nicholas," now better known as "The Night Before Christmas."

He was dressed all in fur, from his head to his foot,
And his clothes were all tarnished with ashes and soot;
A bundle of toys he had flung on his back,
And he looked like a peddler just opening his pack.

His eyes how they twinkled! His dimples how merry!
His cheeks were like roses, his nose like a cherry!
His droll little mouth was drawn up like a bow,
And the beard of his chin was as white as the snow;

The stump of a pipe he held tight in his teeth,
And the smoke it encircled his head like a wreath;
He had a broad face and a little round belly,
That shook, when he laughed like a bowlful of jelly.
He was chubby and plump, a right jolly old elf. . . .

Washington Irving's St. Nicholas strongly influenced the poem's portrayal of a round, pipe-smoking, elf-like St. Nicholas. The poem generally has been attributed to Clement Clark Moore, a professor of biblical languages at New York's Episcopal General Theological Seminary. However, a case has been made by Don Foster in Author Unknown, that Henry Livingston actually penned it in 1807 or 1808. Livingston was a farmer/patriot who wrote humorous verse for children. In any case, "A Visit from St. Nicholas" became a defining American holiday classic. No matter who was the author, it has had an enormous influence on the American transformation of St. Nicholas.

Other artists and writers continued the change to an elf-like St. Nicholas, "Sancte Claus," or "Santa Claus," unlike the stately European bishop. In 1863, political cartoonist Thomas Nast began a series of annual drawings in Harper's Weekly which were based on the descriptions found in the poem and Washington Irving's work. These drawings established a rotund Santa with flowing beard, fur garments, and an omnipresent clay pipe. As Nast drew Santas until 1886, his work had considerable influence in forming the American Santa Claus. Along with changes in appearance, the saint's name changed to Santa Claus as a natural phonetic alteration from the German Sankt Niklaus and Dutch Sinterklaas.

Dozens of artists portrayed Santa in a wide range of styles, sizes, and colors, including Norman Rockwell on Saturday Evening Post covers. But it was in the 1930s that the now-familiar American Santa image solidified. Haddon Sundblom began thirty-five years of Coca-Cola Santa advertisements which finally established Santa as an icon of contemporary commercial culture. This Santa was life-sized, jolly, and wearing the now familiar red suit. He appeared in magazines, on billboards, and shop counters encouraging Americans to see Coke as the solution to "a thirst for all seasons." By the 1950s Santa was turning up everywhere as a benign source of beneficence. This commercial success has led to the North American Santa Claus being exported around the world where he threatens to overcome the European St. Nicholas, who has retained his identity as a Christian bishop and saint.

It's been a long journey from the Fourth Century Bishop of Myra, St. Nicholas, who showed his devotion to God in extraordinary kindness and generosity, to America's jolly Santa Claus. However, if you peel back the accretions he is still Nicholas, Bishop of Myra, whose caring surprises continue to model true giving and faithfulness. In the United States there is growing interest in the original saint to help recover the spiritual dimension of this festive time. For indeed, St. Nicholas, lover of the poor and patron saint of children, is a model of how Christians are meant to live. A priest, a bishop, Nicholas put Jesus Christ at the center of his life, his ministry, his entire existence. Families, churches, and schools are embracing true St Nicholas traditions as one way to claim the true center of Christmas, the birth of Jesus. Such a focus helps restore balance to increasingly materialistic and stress-filled Advent and Christmas seasons."

Click here to read the entire history (and to see the cool photos because Blogger won't let me upload those which I saved to my pc for this very purpose).

As a side note, at the end of the Photos Help page Blogger says on the topic of uploading photos-

It's free. Go nuts people!

Go nuts, indeed. ;)

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