December 6 was formerly observed as the feast of a saint with a very intimate modern connection to Christmas: Saint Nicholas. Who is Nicholas, and how does he relate to modern Santa?
I the scripture
GOOD SR, St Nicholas does not appear, despite some contemporary misunderstandings, in the Bible. The New Testament uses the title âholyâ – which originally comes from the Latin word for âholyâ – to refer to all who have been âsanctifiedâ: except as belonging to the Kingdom of God by being baptized. In Revelation, the saints of God appear in heaven, where an angel describes them as having “washed their robes and made them white in the blood of the Lamb” (7,14), a reference to Christ’s atoning sacrifice on the cross. The title of “saint” began to be used for those whose lives demonstrated a particular holiness, in whom the work of God’s grace had been particularly apparent, which led people to believe that they were certain of to be in heaven with the Lord.
ST NICOLAS was Bishop of Myra in what is now Turkey, but then an eastern province of the Roman Empire, shortly after the Empire’s conversion to the Christian faith. Nicolas lived at the end of the 3rd century and the beginning of the 4th century; thus he personally witnessed the transformation of Christianity from persecuted religion to state sponsorship that came with the conversion of Emperor Constantine.
These were heady days for the Church, but also difficult, for there were deep discussions about the true identity of Jesus. An Egyptian high priest, Arius, argued that Jesus was not God incarnate, but some kind of super-exalted angel, and was so persuasive that the world church began to divide on the issue. Nicholas was said to have been so annoyed with Arius that he punched him during one of the church councils.
It is this (largely neglected) story of Nicholas as an Orthodox bishop of the Middle East that I inspired in my photo of the saint, basing my portrayal on a portrait imagined by the 19th century Czech painter Jaroslav MermÃ¡k.
However, it was after Nicolas’ death that his reputation took off. In medieval times, his main fame was to be the patron saint of sailors, and his tomb was first on the island of Gemile and then in Myra, a center of pilgrimage – and of plunder. The Italian trading town of Bari sought to appropriate Nicholas by kidnapping his bones in 1087 and taking them to the town to ensure the safety of its fleets. To this day, the city celebrates a feast with great pomp on May 9, when the relics of St. Nicholas traditionally arrived in their new home.
However, there were also legends about Nicholas’ special care for children. He is said to have brought back to life three children who had been killed and pickled by a rogue butcher during a time of famine. Specifically, one of the earliest stories told of how he saved three poor girls from potential human trafficking, providing them with money to offer as a dowry, dropping the bags of gold anonymously into the chimney. The seeds of a rapidly growing tradition had been sown.
By the 16th century, the cult of St. Nicholas had spread from Italy to the Netherlands, and it was here that Sinta Klaas, the bishop carrying gifts, really got into the Christmas spirit. Her generosity was now something every child could benefit from, bringing gifts on their birthday to reward good ones, while being accompanied by “Zwarte Piet â, a rather racist stereotype of a Spanish Moor, who could punish bad guys.
In Eastern Europe, Saint Nicholas was accompanied by the most terrifying Krampus, a demonic figure with whom parents could terrify their children into good behavior. By the time the Dutch settlers in the United States had brought the traditions of the homeland with them, some of these negative props had been largely and gleefully eliminated, although Santa Claus – as he was now – still kept track of. if the children deserved Christmas presents.
However, a merger with the English tradition of Santa Claus meant that the image of the bishop offering gifts was largely overwhelmed by the midwinter semi-pagan spirit and its largely forgotten origins, as the North Pole became his residence and the makers of elven toys. became his companions.
There are two aspects of Nicholas’ story that resonate with the Christian disciple through the ages. The first is his defense of orthodoxy – the righteous worship – of God to which all Christians are enjoined. The Creed of the Council of Nicaea, in which Nicolas participated in 325, remains to this day the clearest articulation of the fundamental truths defended as the Christian faith “delivered to the saints”.
However, the second must be his generosity and the inspiration for his Christmas gifts. We are all called to generosity (2 Corinthians 9: 6-8) and this reflects the grace of God, who freely gives it to us in Christ. âYou have received free of charge; give freely â, says the Lord (Matthew 10.8). True worship of God must lead to truly transformed lives. As we reflect on the generosity and cheerfulness in the good things exhibited in the story of Saint Nicholas, Father Christmas, pause to pray that his spirit will be a part of the discipleship we are living.
Generous God, you have given us an example of fidelity and generosity in the ministry and example of Saint Nicholas. In this holy season, may that same example inspire and guide our planning and actions, our worship and our hopes, so that with him we may follow Jesus, the Lord and Savior in whose name we pray. Amen.
The Right Reverend Gregory K. Cameron is the Bishop of St Asaph.
An Advent Book: Meet Christmas Characters is published by Canterbury Press at Â£ 9.99 (Library CT Â£ 8.99).