Tuesday, 6 December 2016

St Nicholas Day 2017

Today Google invites me to "skydive with Santa and boogie with elves in Santa's Village". 
No thank you. 
Doesn't Google know it's St Nicholas' Day today? Not even the legends about St Nicholas have any reference to sky-diving or boogieing with elves.
Yes I know I'm starting to sound like Scrooge saying 'bah humbug' to the whole Christmas merriment. I will be celebrating Christmas - but not yet - apart from the odd mince pie which I couldn't possibly refuse when offered.

Today is the day to celebrate the original Santa Claus, Sinterklaas, Saint Nicholas, St Nikolas - take your pick of names according to your language preference. It's the Feast of St Nicholas today. (Except in some places where it was yesterday).

It's traditional to celebrate Christian saints on the date (or supposed date) of their death. For St Nicholas that was 6 December AD 343. He died in Myra (in modern Turkey) where he was a Bishop.

In iconography St Nicholas is often depicted as looking rather pious - very different from the jolly Santa Claus images. I think the intention of the Russian artist Fyodor Zubov in the icon of St Nicholas that illustrates this post, is that St Nicholas should look serene because of his commitment to prayer. In some other paintings and icons I think he looks miserable. He often had reason to be sad. He suffered. It can't have been any fun being exiled and thrown into prison because of his Christian faith. And if the numerous legends about him are to be believed, he was acutely aware of the sufferings of poor, needy and desperate people. It is said that having been born of wealthy parents who died when he was young, he used his whole inheritance to give to the poor. He followed the example of Jesus in showing compassion.

Unlike the commercial Santa Claus with his huge sack bulging with toys, St Nicholas if often portrayed carrying the book of the Gospels. The Christian Gospels tell the story of Jesus who brings good news for all people - and not just the ones who've been good in the last year. The modern image of Santa Claus was developed to spread the commercial Christmas message by boosting Christmas sales. St Nicholas spread the story of Christ coming into the world with a message of peace and goodwill. Some icons of St Nicholas also have words that were important to him, the words of Jesus, "Repent, for the kingdom of heaven has come near." (Matthew 3: 17)

The modern Santa Claus is a mythical figure, combining the myths of several cultures including his ability to fly through the air from the North Pole assisted only by reindeer and some elves. St Nicholas is a real person who lived and worked on the earth but is now part of the communion of saints, that great cloud of witnesses to the truth about Jesus Christ.  Jesus too is a real person who walked this earth and is the reason for the Christmas celebration - not Santa Claus.

Unlike Santa Claus who is always fat, St Nicholas is usually shown as thin, conveying a life of self-denial and regular fasting. It's fitting that St Nicholas Day falls during Advent, a season of preparation that some observe by fasting before the Feast of the Incarnation which is Christmas.

If you want to know more of the various legends associated with St Nicholas you can find many of them at the St Nicholas Center website.

Or you might want to pray this prayer for St Nicholas Day:

Almighty Father, lover of souls, 
who chose your servant Nicholas to be a bishop in the church, 
that he might give freely out of the treasures of your grace: 
make us mindful of the needs of others 
and, as we have received, so teach us also to give; 
through Jesus Christ your Son our Lord, 
who is alive and reigns with you, 
in the unity of the Holy Spirit, 
one God, now and for ever. Amen.
Collect for St Nicholas Day, Common Worship



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