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Tuesday, December 06, 2005

Feast of St. Nicholas

There is often a derision of Santa Claus among Christians, portraying him as a secularized addition to Christmas. And, there is some validity to that. As Catholic Exchange puts it:

Saint Nicholas

About the only thing that Saint Nicholas has in common with the secular Santa Claus is generosity. Whereas Jolly ol’ St. Nick brings material gifts to children once a year, the real Saint Nicholas gave of himself daily. His gifts brought food to the hungry, clothes to the poor and nourishment to the soul. He gave of himself to others. He was not only good and generous, but also pious and devout, and he centered his life on God.

The popular figure of Santa Claus, so prevalent at Christmas, is based less on the Christian saint than on the Germanic god, Thor. This god was associated with winter and the Yule log and rode in a chariot drawn by goats named Cracker and Gnasher.

*sings* You know Cracker and Gnasher and Donner and Blitzen... *stops*

But the origin of Santa Claus is a bit more spiritual in nature than the claymation Santa who drives the sleigh headed by Rudolph every year on TV. Saint Nicholas was a bishop of the church, known for his enthusiasm for the faith and his holiness. He was imprisoned at one point because of his belief in Christ, and was a part of the council of Nicaea which produced the Creed which was a response to the Arian heresy.

Another article on Catholic Exchange continues:

The rest of what is known about St. Nicholas is mostly speculative. There is a story about three poverty-stricken young girls whose father was planning to give them up to prostitution since he could not afford dowries for them. Nicholas, hearing about this, and having been born into wealth, took three bags of gold and threw them into the girls’ house. Afterwards, all three girls were married and saved from lives of prostitution.

It is said that Nicholas destroyed pagan temples and devoted himself to converting sinners and helping the poor. He is the patron of storm-beset sailors because it is said that he miraculously saved some doomed mariners off the coast of Lycia. He is also patron of prisoners and children as well as the patron saint of Greece, Sicily, and Russia.

He was referred to as Klaus (short for Nicholas) by some, later to be known as Sint Klaus, and by the Dutch as Santa Claus. Saint Nicholas died in 350 A.D.

This info from About.com:

St. Nicholas was a Bishop of Myra in Lycia during the fourth century. Where he lived, Christians were often prosecuted and even tortured for their faith. As a child, he showed numerous signs of wanting to praise God. He spent a lot of time fasting and trying to be spiritually correct for God. He avoided anything that could cause him to sin.

His parents taught him to love God and people. When they died, he inherited their money. He often gave the money to the poor and hungry. St. Nicholas did this in secret. St. Nicholas heard about a local man that recently became poor and was planning to sell his daughters for prostitution. St. Nicholas went to the man's house that night and threw three bags of gold in through the window. These bags of gold became the three golden balls that represent a pawnshop. This also led to the tradition of the Christmas stockings. He would never brag about his good deeds.

When he spent all the money, he decided to become a monk. Shortly after being a monk, he realized he needed to be a priest. He studied the Law of God. St. Nicholas worked hard at being a village priest. Many loved him. After the Archbishop of Myra died, St. Nicholas was chosen to be the successor.

Since St. Nicholas was good to God, God worked miracles through him. He was able to calm storms, help children, and multiply food. People began to call him "a wonderworker" and were inspired to do good deeds as well.

St. Nicholas died on December 6, 343 AD. He was buried in his cathedral, but in 1087, his relics were moved to Italy. The Turks were harming anything Christian so they had to move them fast. They remain in a town called Bari. His relics have a fragrant substance called myrrh. Many people who are sick can anoint themselves with it and are healed.

To reclaim the secular Santa Claus and point to a Saint who loved Christ and devoted his life to the Gospel is a powerful thing. One way to do that, it seems, is to reduce the role of Santa in the current Christmas to a supporting role, more in line with the values and story of St. Nicholas. One tradition is for children to awaken on December 6th to find their shoes filled with candy, in honor of St. Nicholas. Thus, rather than just becoming a "myth my parents taught me", St. Nick can be honored every year, whether a child or not, in a way that points ourselves and others to a firm devotion to the Gospel of Christ.


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