December 12, 2000

The Real Santa


The Real Santa

In keeping with the Christmas holiday season, we are going to take a look at a how a Bishop from Turkey became the patron saint of Moscow and Santa Claus to the world. Little is known about Nicholas' early life. He is believed to have been born into a wealthy family in the Lycian seaport town of Patara, Turkey.

He was imprisoned, for refusing to denounce his Christian faith, during the reign of the Roman Emperor Diocletian {AD 284-305 }. When the Greek, Constantine, became emperor, the center of the empire was moved to Constantinople {modern day Istanbul, Turkey}.

Constantine did more than tolerate Christianity, he made it the official religion of the Eastern Roman Empire. The persecution of Christians ceased, prisoners were released and the Emperor called for the convening of a sacred council, which we know as the Council of Nicea or the First Ecumenical Council. Nicholas, now Bishop of Myra, in Turkey, attended this council in AD 325. Nicholas' remains were, originally, entombed at Myra, modern Demre {Myra = myrrh}. In 1087, the Saint's relics were moved to Bari, Italy, where they are still enshrined in the Basilica of St. Nicola.

What is the connection between this venerable Bishop and Santa Claus? Legend has it that Nicholas worked numerous miracles for those in need. He is also known as the Wonder Worker. Possibly the most famous and popular story concerns a nobleman and his three daughters.

The nobleman had fallen on hard times and did not have the money to pay his daughters' dowries. Without this, the girls could not marry. Nicholas, learning of their despair, went to the house, at night, and dropped a bag of gold coins in one of the daughter's window. Later, he returned and deposited a bag of coins in through the next girl's window. When he returned to bestow his gift on the third girl, all the windows of the house were locked. So, the good Bishop climbed up on the roof and dropped the bag of money down through the chimney. The coins fell into the girls' stockings that were hanging on the fireplace mantle to dry. Sound familiar? This legend is where we get the tradition of hanging stockings for Santa to fill with treats and gifts on Christmas Eve!

Some of Nicholas' acts are documented and, thus, amount to more than legend. One of the earliest such accounts is found in a sixth century Greek text. Three officers, sentenced to death, were saved by Nicholas who appeared to Constantine in a dream. Nicholas is credited with resurrecting three children burned to death in a fire and saving, yet another child, from drowning. He calmed a storm off the coast of Lycia, saving several sailors from certain death. The Bishop is said to have done many charitable acts. For example, Nicholas purchased a rug from a poor street vendor for an inflated price and then gave the rug to the vendor's wife as a gift. Thus, the couple gained financial help and retained their property. This act shows Nicholas' sensitivity to human dignity. (Icon of St. Nicholas the Wonder Worker and scenes from his life).

Nicholas quickly became a beloved saint worldwide. He is a favorite patron saint, especially in Greece and Russia. In fact, St. Nicholas is the patron saint of Moscow. A church was built in his honor, in the sixth century, by Roman emperor Justinian, at Constantinople. St. Nicholas' Feast Day is December 6th, the date of his death in ca. AD 350. In many Eastern traditions, this is a festive day of thanksgiving and gift giving.

Nicholas' popularity created many surnames worldwide; Nichols, Colson, Collins, etc. His transition to Father Christmas occurred first in Germany where the Reformed Protestant churches were in a majority. In the Dutch Reformed Church, St. Nicholas was known as Sinter Claes which became Santa Claus in English speaking countries. Christmas is the season when Christians celebrate the Nativity of Christ. It is, also, a holiday associated with the celebration of the family; especially children. The legends and accounts surrounding the Bishop of Myra, his charity, miracles and love for children and family make him the real Santa.

You are probably wondering how the jolly old elf with the red suit with a big belly figures into our story. During the American Civil War, a political cartoonist named Thomas Nast, endeavored to lift the spirits of the Union soldiers by drawing a gift bearing Santa Claus in a red, white and blue suit. The jolly elf motif is thanks to a theology professor, Dr. Clement Moore{1779-1863}of New York City, who wrote Twas the Night Before Christmas to entertain his restless children.

If you can put aside the commercialism of Christmas for a moment, it is easy to see how the real Saint Nicholas and the fictional Santa Clause do, indeed, embody the true spirit of the season. This is a time of gentleness, sharing and celebration of the family. These ideals translate into any language and culture.

Differences between the Churches of East and West eventually culminated in the Great Schism of 1054. From the time of Constantine, the Eastern Roman or Byzantine Empire was ruled from Constantinople and the Western Roman Empire from Rome. The Western empire was more barbaric and busy invading Europe. Their theological development was influenced greatly by individuals such as St. Augustine {AD 354-430}. In the East, times were more peaceful, the arts and commerce flourished and Christian doctrine was fashioned by the Greek Fathers.

It is from Constantinople that the Church spread to Russia, in the mid-900's, and developed into the Russian Orthodox Church. Its roots are in the Church of Constantinople; the Byzantine Orthodox Church; the Church of Bishop Nicholas. Thus, this beloved saint is cherished by the Russian Church and people.

Readings for St. Nicholas' Feast day; Dec. 6

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