Friday, December 6, 2013

St Nicholas Day

Today, December 6, is St Nicholas Day. Christopher Warner at The Catholic World Report on the real St. Nicholas — the one of legend — and the fictional one most Americans enjoy:
.... In 1809, Washington Irving wrote Knickerbocker’s History of New York, a work of imaginative fiction that included several tales about a jolly, elfin Dutchman scampering down chimneys to bring gifts to children. The American image of Santa Claus was solidified during this time period. “A Visit from St. Nicholas,” a poem by Clement Clarke Moore published in 1823 and better known as “Twas the Night Before Christmas,” introduced the enduring image of Santa’s reindeer and sleigh and fixed the date of his visit to Christmas Eve. These are fun stories that make up an important part of our literary tradition and culture in America. However, stuffing chimney-hung stockings is an ancient tradition that pre-dates the American elf lore as well as the Dutch, who fill their children’s wooden clogs with gifts the night before St. Nicholas Day (December 6). Chucking gold into people’s wet socks is a custom started by a young man named Nicholas who lived in Asia Minor around 300 AD.

There are hundreds of stories about St. Nicholas of Myra. He was born in Lycia on the southwest coast of modern Turkey. His wealthy, pious parents, Theophanes and Nonna, read to him the Holy Scriptures and faithfully taught him his prayers, but apparently died while he was still young. His uncle, Bishop Nicholas of Patara, ordained young Nicholas and made him his personal assistant. The zealous youth proved himself an inspiring catechist in the Christian community and an obedient servant to his uncle. During these dutiful years he showed great kind-heartedness and generosity by distributing his inheritance to the poor.

During this time, the three grown daughters of a formerly rich inhabitant were in danger of being sold into slavery because of their father’s pennilessness. Hearing of this, young Nicholas secretly visited the man’s house at night and threw gold in at the window to provide a dowry for one of the girls. ....

.... Nicholas was made archbishop of Myra. Difficult years followed for the archbishop and his flock, who were forced underground by the Roman Emperor Diocletian’s brutal, expansive persecution of Christians. During this time the good archbishop, who had the charism of bi-location, often appeared to imprisoned members of his flock as a model of gentleness, kindness, and love, until the day he too was discovered in hiding. In jail Nicholas continued to sustain and exhort his fellow believers to endure torture and death for the love of Christ. After Diocletian’s death, Nicholas was released and returned to his sacramental duties as a “confessor of the faith”—a titled given to Christians who were imprisoned and tortured for their faith during this period, but not executed. They were extremely revered and respected by their contemporaries.
My favorite story about St Nicholas probably doesn't reflect well on me:
Archbishop Nicholas attended the first Ecumenical Council at Nicaea (325), where he allegedly assailed the heretic Arius. In the middle of his hearing, Arius stood up on his seat in order to be better heard. Enraged by Arius’ denial that Jesus Christ is true God and true man, Archbishop Nicholas strode quickly over to Arius, pulled him down by his beard, and punched him in the face. The scandalized council fathers sprang upon Nicholas, stripped him of his pallium, and threw him in prison for his brutish behavior. That night Nicholas was visited by the Holy Family who loosed his bonds and vested him again in his apostolic garb. The bishops were astonished by this miracle and realized that Nicholas’ anger was righteous. He was honorably restored to his chair—where the aged prelate slept through much of the remaining proceedings. ....

.... [T]he biggest problem with a Turkish Santa Claus seems to be that it spoils the best-kept, sacrosanct secret in America. If children stop believing in the elfin Santa who flies down from the North Pole with his reindeer, won’t they stop getting presents? And if I tell my child different St. Nicholas stories, won’t it spoil Christmas for someone’s precious child when she hears my son tell her at school: “Santa doesn’t live at the North Pole. He sleeps by the Adriatic Sea sweating off myrrh for lame pilgrims.” .... [more]