Wednesday, December 12, 2012

Will the real Saint Nick please stand up?

(Conversations with Jeffrey--The Series)

“Jeffrey, you believe in Saint Nick, right?”

Grandma, remember I'm 13 now!”

“I mean the real one, the flesh and blood man whose Feast day is December 6 and celebrated by Catholic Christians all over the world.”

Don't you mean December 25th and Santa Claus?”

“Nope. At Christmas we celebrate the birthday of Jesus, although we don't know the exact date or year of our Savior's birth. I mean Saint Nicholas, a bishop of the Church, a real historical figure who lived at the turn of the fourth century.”

Exactly where did he live? I'm guessing it wasn't at the North Pole?”

“In Asia Minor in what is now Turkey, but it was a Greek province at the time. It isn't far from the Holy Land, Israel, just across the Mediterranean sea.”

So there really was a Saint Nick?”

Absolutely. Catholic Christian Churches around the world still honor Saint Nicholas as the generous, model bishop who put Jesus Christ at the center of his life, his ministry, and his entire existence.”

But where does the name 'Santa Claus' and his story come from?”

'Santa' means 'saint' and 'Claus' came from shortening the bishop's name 'Nicholas.' Some say that early Dutch settlers in New York brought their tradition of 'Sinter Klass' to America and that started the tradition here.”

Tell me again what a 'saint' is?”

The word 'saint' means 'holy.' Saints are just ordinary people who want to live like Jesus taught us to live, but they are special because they did a good job at it. The apostle Paul calls all Christians 'saints' in his writings.”

They're sort of like Catholic Christian heroes, right? Like role models?”

That's the idea. We consider them examples of how we too should live pleasing to God. Because they are still alive in Heaven, no matter how long ago they lived on earth, we can ask them to pray for us.”

What connection does this real Saint Nick have to the Santa Claus story today.”

“The Santa Claus story sort of grew in people's imaginations through the centuries since the real man lived who was named Nicholas, the Bishop of Myra, a southern seaport in Turkey. Even the way the modern Santa Claus is dressed came from the real Saint Nicholas. Bishops of the Church always wear red and Nicholas was a bishop. Today's Santa and his 'helpers' are always dressed in red. Starting in 1931 (when Grandma was only six years old!) the Coca-Cola company started using a caricature of the real Saint Nick for their advertising.”

What's a 'caricature'?”

“It's like a cartoon, an artist's way of exaggerating certain features of the real person.” 

Do we know anything about Nicholas as he was growing up?”

“Nick was the only child of very rich parents who died in an epidemic when he was a young boy. He grew up in a monastery and became a priest when he was 17. He inherited his parents' wealth and used all of it to help poor families, widows, and especially children and orphans. He became famous for his generosity and kindness and giving of gifts.”

How long after Jesus' resurrection did Nicholas live?”

“About 280 years. The Christian Church was just getting started, but faith in Jesus was spreading fast all over the known world of that day. During Nicholas' life the leader of the country, Emperor Diocletian tried to destroy the Church with his political power. One of his advisers was the son of a witch. The Emperor worshiped pagan idols, burned writings about Jesus, and forced priests to renounce the Christian faith or face death. He forbade Christians to meet together or hold any government office. As a bishop and their leader, Nicholas was the main target for his persecution.” 

Did this stop Bishop Saint Nick and all those new Christians?”

“The emperor arrested him and had him tortured for disobeying the new laws. Actually, the real Saint Nick must have been very skinny, unlike today's Santa. He spent more than a decade in prison being starved and also fasted often when he was free. Emperor Diocletian was eventually defeated, and his kingdom collapsed. Constantine, who became the next emperor, was favorable to the Christians, so Saint Nick finally got out of jail.”

Did everything go smoothly for the Christians then?”

“There was trouble. Some who called themselves Christians but didn't believe exactly what Jesus and His apostles taught caused confusion. Nicholas was known for his courage to stand firm for the true Christian faith. He lived it and taught his people well. He was against the heresies of those times.”

What's a heresy?”

“It's a teaching that is contrary to what Jesus and his followers clearly taught. The main heresy in Nicholas' day was led by a man named Arius from Egypt. He tried to convince people that Jesus was not really the Son of God, maybe just a prophet or only a top angel—'sort of a lord' but not equal to God.”

How did that all get settled?”

“In those early first centuries after Jesus' resurrection when all the new Christians were forming their common beliefs, they settled important matters of the Christian Church by calling a Council of all the bishops. The first one ever was called by Emperor Constantine during the time of Bishop Nicholas. It was held in Nicea in 325. More than 300 bishops from all over the Christian world attended, including Nicholas. Their conclusions are what we declare in the Nicene Creed that we say every Sunday at Mass.”

Did our Saint Nick stand up against this Arius fellow?”

“Bishop Nick got so angry with Arius at the Council for saying such things about Jesus, that he belted him—he hit him with his fist and knocked him down!”

Wow! What happened to Saint Nick?”

“For doing that, the Emperor took away his vestments and his bishop's credentials and threw him in prison. The story goes that Jesus and his Mother appeared to him in a vision in prison and reinstated him as the bishop.”

What kind of gifts did our Saint Nick give to people?”
“Legends say that Saint Nick always wanted to help people anonymously. He didn't want to draw attention to himself. On one occasion he heard that a certain poor man had three daughters who wanted to be married. But their father didn't have money for a dowry so Bishop Nick secretly helped him out.”

What's a dowry?” 
“In those early centuries, a young woman's father had to offer a prospective husband something of value called a dowry. Without a dowry, she was not likely to marry and might have to be sold into slavery. On three different occasions, so the story goes, Saint Nick threw gold coins through their windows where they landed in stockings hanging by the fireplace to dry.”

Could that be where the custom of filling stockings at Christmas came from?”

“Probably. He is also known for saving three innocent condemned prisoners who were blindfolded and ready for the executioner's sword. Nicholas fearlessly grabbed the sword, cleared them of the unjust charges, and the men went free. Saint Nick is widely known as the patron saint of children. There are other stories of him rescuing children from danger after they were kidnapped or missing. There is a scary one about three little children lured into the clutches of an evil butcher. At another time three theological students were murdered by an innkeeper and their bodies chopped up and hidden in a pickling tub.”

That's gross, Grandma. Is it true?”

“Who knows? Stories grow bigger with the retelling. Saint Nick was said to have restored the dead students to life. He had a strong concern for justice, especially for innocent condemned prisoners. Also for intervening in favor of people unjustly jailed, which was common in those days.”

He must have been quite an aggressive man.”

“You could say that, but it was always to defend the true faith of Jesus. The real Saint Nick also destroyed many shrines to pagan idols, drove the demons away, and built churches in their place. He so totally destroyed the most beautiful and famous pagan temple dedicated to the goddess Artemis, who was the Roman equivalent of the Greek goddess Diana, that not one stone was left in place. Thousands of churches all over the world are named in honor of Saint Nicholas.”

Did Saint Nick ever get to the Holy Land?”

“He went there on a pilgrimage. On his way back, the story goes that the ship he was on and the sailors were protected when he prayed, like Jesus did, for God to calm the storm. Many seaports especially in Greece, since Nicholas was Greek by birth, erected statues of him surrounded by small ships made of silver or carved from wood. Sailors even now ask him to pray for their protection. Instead of wishing one another luck, they say, 'May Saint Nicholas hold the tiller.'”

Is Dec. 6th Saint Nick's birthday? How did the idea of giving gifts get shifted to December 25th ?”

“Dec. 6 is the day he died. Saints' days are always commemorated on the day of death, the happy day of their entrance into eternal life. In Europe it was on Saint Nicholas' day when gifts were given. At that time gifts were mainly nuts, apples, and sweets put into shoes left beside beds, on windowsills, or before the hearth.” 

Where did the idea come from that Santa comes down the chimney?”

“Well, that certainly didn't come from the days of the real Saint Nick. Did you know that chimneys weren't even built on houses in those days? Chimneys didn't come into use until the 13th century when they were constructed in northern Europe.”

A lot of the early Santa pictures you showed me have a hooked staff behind him in the sleigh. What's that all about?”

“That custom did come from our real Saint Nick. It is called a 'crozier' and is always carried by a bishop even now in our Churches. It represents a shepherd's staff since a bishop is to be the shepherd of his people, as Jesus is the Good Shepherd.”

Bishop Loverde carried a crozier like that when he conducted our Confirmation Mass.”

Did you notice that in some pictures of Santa today he is carrying a big book? In some European gift-giving traditions the large book represents the record of children's behavior—Santa is checking if they were 'naughty or nice.' But the big book we see at Mass from which the priest or the lector reads is the Book of the Gospels or the Holy Scriptures.” 
For today's Santa, where did the idea of the sleigh and reindeer come from?”

“It took generations before the tradition settled on Santa coming on Christmas to bring gifts. In 1821 the first, small, lithographed book was published in America titled The Children's Friend. A 'Sancte Claus' (in German, 'Sankt Nicklaus') was pictured with a red beard arriving from the North in a sleigh pulled by one sort of exhausted-looking flying reindeer. They were shown landing on a roof by a chimney. Santa began to be thought of as rewarding good behavior and punishing bad. Gifts were mostly safe toys, dolls, and books. The sleigh even had a bookshelf! From then on the tradition shifted away from the real Saint Nicholas celebration to Santa coming on Christmas eve.”

Grandma, that long-ago picture shows Santa as a tiny man not the big guy in pictures we see now.”

“That was still the idea two years later when Clement Clark Moore wrote the poem 'The Night Before Christmas' for his six kids. The way the author imagined Santa was 'chubby and plump, a right jolly old elf' and his sleigh was miniature. The description stuck and the poem became famous.”

Where did that long clay pipe and all the smoke Santa blew from it originate?”

“The traditional pipe was from the Dutch, who were known to be heavy smokers. It wasn't until the end of the 1920s (when Grandma was in kindergarten!) that the American Santa began to be pictured as a normal-sized old man but with a hugely fat belly.”

And his original red beard has became all white and long to match the fur trim on his suit. He has a fat, white mustache, rosy cheeks and twinkling eyes.”

That's the way the story goes. And he wears snow boots, a wide black belt, and a long-tailed ski cap. But Bishop Saint Nick's hat was called a 'miter,' the special tall, pointed hat of his appointed office.”

And I guess he likes Coca-Cola, or hot chocolate, and cookies that people leave by the fireplace for him!”

“Now he owns eight reindeer (nine, if you count the new Rudolf with the red nose!) and a bunch of elf assistants who are busy making toys all year. And the toys are really high-tech now!”

That doesn't sound much like our original Saint Nick.”

“Santa Claus, for some, replaces the Babe of Bethlehem; the real Saint Nick points us to the real Babe of Bethlehem. 
Today's Santa is pictured as flying through the air from the North Pole; Saint Nick walked the earth caring for those in need. 
Santa, as we know him, was brought on the scene to boost commercial Christmas sales; Saint Nicholas brought the message of Christ and peace, goodwill toward all—the real Christmas story. Santa belongs to childhood fantasy; Saint Nick is still a Christian model for all of us.”

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