Wednesday, December 14, 2011


An Ikon of Saint Nicholas
Hello My Friend and Welcome.

Saint Nicholas versus Santa Claus. Hmmm, sounds a bit like a promo for an upcoming event on the Wrestling Channel, doesn’t it?

Let’s drop in and take a look…
Bursting with excitement, the announcer says, “Welcome Ladies and Gentlemen. You’ve tuned into the smack-down of the century, a match made in heaven. At the end of this evening only one man will remain standing. Who will it be?”

The announcer continues as the camera focuses on a slim wrestler in gold trunks as he stretches and tests the ropes. The white robe he’s wearing has a gold crown on the back. “Here we have the perennial champion…St. Nick. They used to call him Jolly Old St Nick, but we haven’t seen that famous grin of his lately. With his popularity tanking I guess he doesn’t have much to smile about. Even the church ladies have sworn off old Nick. Times change and today’s favorite can be tomorrow’s has been. I can’t help wondering if he’s bitten off more than he can chew tonight. Could this be the match that forces him into permanent retirement?”

Loud cheers and shouts interrupt the announcer. The sound of people stamping their feet reverberates throughout the arena. The camera quickly pans to the opposite corner of the ring where an overweight man in a red spandex suit, mask and cape is climbing through the ropes.

The announcer must shout to be heard over the crowd. “There he is, folks. This is what the crowd’s been waiting for…the man who thinks he can unseat Old Nick. The crowd is going crazy. Listen, they’re chanting his name. Santa...Santa...Santa...In all my years I’ve never seen anyone as wildly popular as Mr. C. They say he flew his private sleigh in especially for this match. This Mr. C is more than just a wrestler; he’s a overwhelming force.”

The former wrestler who provides color commentary leans close to the mike. “Sure he’s popular, but when you stop and think about it, we know nothing about this Mr. C character. I mean, it’s like he’s been created out of thin air by the media. Who, or what, is hiding underneath that mask and red suit?”

The announcer shakes his head and grins. “Yep, he’s a man of mystery, all right. No one knows anything about him, but for some unexplainable reason they love him anyway.”

The bell rings and the two men step forward to meet with the referee at the center of the ring. The match is about to begin.
A Furr Trimmed Bishop's Miter?
St. Nicholas was born in 271 and died around 342 or 343 near the town of Myra in what was called Asia Minor, present day Turkey. At the time of his death, Nicholas served as Bishop of Myra. The story of how he achieved that office is an interesting one. During the last official Christian persecution by the Roman Empire, the bishops from the surrounding cities and villages were called together to choose a successor when the Bishop of Myra died.

Nicholas made it a habit to rise early and go to church to pray.
That morning an elderly priest greeted him when he entered the sanctuary. “Who are you, my son?”
“Nicholas the sinner,” the young priest replied. “And I am your servant.”
“Come with me,” the old priest said, taking him by the arm.

Nicholas followed him into a room where the bishops had assembled. The elderly priest addressed the gathering. “I had a vision last night that the first one to enter the church in the morning should be the new Bishop of Myra. Here is that man, Nicholas.”

Nicholas ended up leading his congregation through the worst, and last, official Roman persecution of the Church. Diocletian had been Emperor for 19 years when he began a widespread oppression of Christians in the year 303. Diocletian left office two years later, but his successor, Galerius, continued the harassment.

Nicholas was exiled and imprisoned during this period and only returned to his diocese in 311 when the Edict of Toleration ended the persecution. Two years later in 313 Constantine’s Edict of Milan made Christianity a legal religion. Nicholas is also said to have participated in the Council of Nicaea in 325, although his name is not listed among the attendees.

Nicholas was a friend to the poor and helpless while serving as Bishop. Following the admonition of Christ that “when you give alms, do not let your left hand know what your right hand is doing, so that your alms may be in secret;…” (Matthew 6:3), he moved about the city aiding the poor and needy without anyone knowing it.

The story is told of three young girls whose father couldn’t afford their dowry and they weren’t able to marry. Nicholas tossed a bag of coins down their chimney so that they would have the necessary dowry without knowing where it came from. By coincidence the girls had hung their stockings from the mantel to dry and Nicholas’s sack ended up in one of the stockings. This legend led to children in many European countries leaving their shoes on the hearth or hanging stockings on the mantle on the eve of St. Nicholas’ Feast Day, December 6th.

In addition to aiding children in need or distress, Nicholas is also said to have rescued innocent men who were falsely imprisoned. He became known as the friend and protector of all in trouble or need. He was said to be able to calm raging seas and rescue sailors in peril, causing his fame to spread throughout the Mediterranean area.

Centuries after his death, his bones were transported by sailors to Bari, a port in Italy. A monument was constructed over his grave and the town became a destination for those intent on honoring him. His fame eventually spread around to the Atlantic Coast of Europe and the North Sea making St. Nicholas day part of the European Christmas holiday tradition. The Protestant Reformation of the 16th Century slowed, but never completely eradicated St. Nicholas traditions and observances of his comings and goings.
Making the Transistion from Saint to Shill
He traveled to America with Dutch colonists who settled in New York. They called him Sinterklaas. In 1809 American author, Washington Irving, took the first step that eventually morphed the saintly Bishop into the blatant marketing tool known as Santa Claus. Irving’s satirical Knickerbocker’s History of New York made frequent reference to a jolly St. Nicholas-type character who was an elfin Dutch burgher with a clay pipe.

More damage was done in 1823 when a poem called, A Visit from St. Nicholas, was published. Better known by its first line, Twas the Night before Christmas, it tells the story of a man who awakens to noises outside his home and sees St. Nicholas arrive in a sleigh pulled by eight reindeer…all of which are named. Interestingly, the stockings had been hung by the chimney with care in the hopes that St. Nicholas would soon be there…not on December 6th, but on December 25th! He was dressed all in fur, no doubt to protect him from wind chill while flying about in an open sleigh. His eyes how they twinkled, his dimples how merry…His cheeks were like roses, his nose like a cherry. His droll little mouth was drawn up like a bow, and the beard of his chin was as white as the snow. He was chubby and plump, a right jolly pipe-smoking old elf.

Twas the Night Before Christmas

During the Civil War, political cartoonist Thomas Nast did a series of drawings for Harper's Weekly magazine based on the descriptions found in the poem and Washington Irving's work. For the first time, Santa moved into the arena of public opinion letting it be known that he supported the Union cause. Nast continued drawing Santas until 1886. More than St. Nicholas’ appearance changed during the 20 odd years that Nast did his drawings. His name, which had been the Dutch Sinterklaas or German Sankt Niklaus, changed into the Americanized phonetic approximation, Santa Claus.

It didn’t take long for this new Santa Claus to become decidedly commercial. Dozens of artists competed with each other producing Santas in a wide variety of sizes and shapes. By the 1920s the standard American Santa had emerged. A rotund, normal-sized man, instead of an elf, he had a flowing white beard, wore a fur-trimmed red suit, and though seldom seen with his pipe, continued to travel from his North Pole residence in a sleigh pulled by reindeer.

In short order this new Santa became a shameless shill. He willingly hustled any and all products no matter how silly or mundane. If you want Marilyn Monroe, James Dean or Elvis Presley in your ad, even though they’re dead, it’ll cost you an arm and a leg. Mickey Mouse and Donald Duck aren’t even real people, but you’ll still have to pay them a royalty. Meanwhile Santa Claus, who retains just enough of a saintly persona to make him marketable, comes free of charge.

Devoid of scruples and free for the taking, Santa Claus became the ultimate pitchman. Not even a saint can compete with that…as if St. Nicholas cares. The latest word is he’s decided to give up the wrestling circuit and enjoy a leisurely retirement spent occasionally visiting churches or answering prayers when and if he’s invited to do so.

Our Christmas posts continue on Friday when we’ll look at the Star of Bethlehem.

Until then, I wish you Peace and Blessings

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