Saturday, 6 December 2014

St Nicholas Day

This morning I was excited to see that St Nicholas had arrived on the right day in a nearby town - the 'right day' being his saint's day.

At second glance it was obvious that it was not someone dressed up as the 4th century bishop, as in this photo from the Netherlands. He was after all just another Santa Claus complete with sleigh and reindeer and no sign of a bishop's mitre and crozier.

And he was not giving small gifts to children as St Nicolas used to do and according to legend still does in many countries of Europe on 5 - 6 December each year. He, or rather his helpers, were collecting money for charity. I suppose that too is in the spirit of St Nicholas' inspiration.

Facts about the St Nicholas are very thin on the ground. He was certainly Bishop of Mrya in Lycia, which was then Greek, but is now part of Demre in modern Turkey. He probably died on 6 December in AD 343 or in another year. He was imprisoned for his faith under the persecution of the Roman Emperor Diocletian. After release he attended the Council of Nicea in AD 325. 

Legends about St Nicholas are numerous, including many about his goodness, generosity. Most of these legends probably developed during the medieval period. If you are interested in these you can read about them here. One of the most famous of these stories tells how Nicholas secretly gave bags filled with gold coins for each of the 3 daughters of a poor man who could not afford to provide them with marriage dowrys. These gifts rescued them from being forced through poverty into prostitution. Another rather gruesome story which has many versions is of how he rescued 3 theological students (or children) from being pickled (or boiled) in a barrel.

In the Netherlands St Nicholas is known as SinterKlaas and on the eve of 6 December children leave out clogs or shoes in the expectation that SinterKlaas will fill them with sweets or small gifts before the morning. The Dutch 'SinterKlaas' may be the origin of the 'Santa Claus' character first made popular in America but now world-wide. This 'traditional' Santa Claus owes as much to ancient Nordic legends of Thor and Odin as to the legendary generosity of St Nicholas.

I like this comparison by J.Rosenthal and C. Myers between St Nicholas and Santa Claus:

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.
I have to admit - I enjoy the legends of both! How about you? 


Image Credit: Wikipedia, CC License

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