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Nicholas, Bishop of Myrna

St Nicholas Bishop of Myra (aka Santa Claus, aka Father Christmas) AD 260-343. St Nicholas, Santa Claus or Father Christmas? Are they the same people? Does it matter? Who was he? A real early Christian saint, an anthropomorphic figure from the pre-Christian pagan past, transformed into a Christian saint, or a Victorian invention? Well, I’ve found a lovely site here which will answer all your burning St Nicholas/Santa Claus questions. It also attempts to reconstruct his face from early iconography using modern computer modelling techniques. And he turns out to have a white beard and moustache. Having spent a lot of time with Orthodox icons I tend towards the ancient belief that the facial images in these icons are often based on real people (like mediaeval carvings), probably the actual person they represent. All the information here has been taken from the above site, and from Wikpedia St Nicholas was a real Christian, living somewhere around the third century in an area that was then part of Greece, now Turkey. He was appointed bishop even though he was not ordained at the time. He exemplified a passionate belief in Jesus Christ and carrying out the gospel commands to feed the hungry, visit the prisoners, give to the poor, protect the weak, stand up for justice and so on. He inherited wealth and gave it away to the poor. He was famous for his holy lifestyle and miracles.

He was imprisoned and exiled during the Diocletion persecutions, but was released and attended the Council of Nicaea in AD 325. However he was soon imprisoned again by his fellow bishops for striking Arias during the Council. Arias, taught that the Son Jesus was not equal to God the Father. The Arian heresy was the hot issue of the Council. Due to miraculous intervention by Jesus and Mary ( a story reminiscent of Peter in Acts 12: 5-11 and Paul in Acts 16: 23-34) he was released and reinstated as a bishop. Eventually Arias’s views were deemed heretical by the Church. Unusually his relics were kept together, and their location known. They have survived to the present day and been subjected to forensic examination. So unlike some of the other early saints and Apostles we do have a firm historical connection between the physical person and the legends.

He is particularly associated with protecting and rescuing children and sailors. He had and has great popularity as a friend and intercessor for these and other needy people. He is patron saint of a large variety of people including thieves. He is patron saint of a large number of countries. He had a reputation for secret gift giving. The best known early legend responsible for his association with gifts is about bags of gold mysteriously appearing to three young women who needed dowries. The bags were thrown through a window, or possibly down a chimney, or even fell into a stocking drying over the chimney. Hence the Santa coming down the chimney legends. He died on December 6th, and so maybe he was especially associated with giving gifts at Christmas time. The three bags of gold are the origin of the symbol of pawnbrokers – three golden balls – to represent redeeming something of value, as the three young women were redeemed from lives of prostitution. During his lifetime and after his death many miracles were attributed to him and even during his lifetime he became a person venerated for his holiness and intercessory powers. His cult spread throughout the East, Russia, Mediterranean and beyond. He is especially venerated in the East and in Russia.

In the weekly liturgical cycle of the Orthodox Church, Thursday is dedicated to the Holy Apostles and to Saint Nicholas, who stands as a model for all the great hierarchs, the successors to the Apostles and teachers of the Church. He is still credited with miracles, with many 20th Century accounts. After his death a liquid called manna formed in his tomb and was credited with many healing miracles. His tomb at Myra became a place of pilgrimage.

So what about Santa Claus and Father Christmas? Well, the short answer seems to be that the nineteenth century Americans are to blame. I thought it was Prince Albert, Queen Victoria’s husband, and Charles Dickens, but it seems not or not entirely. There is also an early Dutch influence which may account for the traditional red costume, originally a red chasuble. The 17th Century Puritans were also to blame as it seems that their attempts to stamp out the Christmas festivities led to these re-emerging in disguised forms. Bit of an own goal there then. But the personification of Christmas can be traced back to at least the 15th Century in England. Apparently the title Father Christmas is more specifically English, not related to Santa Claus, and has a different provenance. Originally the English Father Christmas figure was dressed in green, which may suggest an association with the Green Man. (I just made that up, I didn’t find any specific reference to the Green Man. It was just an association with the green clothing). Red and green seem to have been the liturgical colours of the season since way back. There is also a suggestion of an association with the ancient Viking God Odin. Nowadays Santa Claus and Father Christmas are used to mean the same person and they are all linked to St Nicholas. There is a suggestion that by the 19th Century there were still post harvest celebrations rooted in the ancient past which were raucous, chaotic, somewhat violent, bacchanalian events, and the development of the modern Christmas rituals were part of an effort to civilise these. Perhaps they still linger in the October/November Halloween type rituals. I do find it interesting how these things carry on through the centuries.

From the site linked to earlier is a comparison of Santa Claus and St Nicholas:

Santa Claus belongs to childhood; St. Nicholas models for all of life.

Santa Claus, as we know him, developed to boost Christmas sales—the commercial Christmas message; St. Nicholas told the story of Christ and peace, goodwill toward all—the hope-filled Christmas message.

Santa Claus encourages consumption; St. Nicholas encourages compassion.

Santa Claus appears each year to be seen and heard for a short time; St. Nicholas is part of the communion of saints surrounding us always with prayer and example.

Santa Claus flies through the air—from the North Pole; St. Nicholas walked the earth—caring for those in need.

Santa Claus, for some, replaces the Babe of Bethlehem; St. Nicholas, for all, points to the Babe of Bethlehem.

Santa Claus isn't bad; St. Nicholas is just better.

J. Rosenthal & C. Myers

Have you been good this year?

Happy Christmas.


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