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Holiday Almanac: The real St. Nicholas

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Today is St. Nicholas Day, honoring the wise, generous saint who inspired the Santa Claus of western Christmas celebrations. His day is often merged with Christmas, but he was a church leader in his own right.

Nicholas was the bishop of fourth-century Myra, Asia Minor, in what is now Turkey. He is recognized by historians for debating an opponent named Arius at the pivotal Council of Nicaea in 325, helping establish church beliefs about the nature of Christ.

It’s the legends about Nicholas, however, that fix him in Christian culture.

  • He was known for giving food and money to the poor. One man received three bags of gold, providing dowries for his three daughters. Nicholas’ generosity made him the patron saint of pawnbrokers, and even inspired the symbol of three golden balls of modern pawnshops.
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St. Nicholas icon at St. Nicholas Episcopal Church, Pompano Beach, Fla. (Photo by James Davis)

  • Nicholas is said to have appeared miraculously to sailors who were trying to sail through a storm in the Mediterranean, guiding them to shore. Greek boasts even today carry icons of Nicholas, which they see as their patron saint.
  • He called on King Constantine to acquit three officers who were condemned to death, and once even stopped an executioner from slaying a man he believed to be unjustly sentenced.  The action made him the patron saint of inmates.
  • In one gruesome tale, Nicholas learned of an innkeeper who murdered three boys. He confronted the man, who broke down and confessed. Then the good bishop resurrected the boys, becoming the patron saint of children.

Next to the Virgin Mary herself, in fact, Nicholas is the most venerated saint — not only among Catholics but Protestants and Eastern Orthodox Christians as well.

The saint’s name changed in the West largely because of Dutch immigrants to New York. “St. Nicholas” is “Sinterklaas” in Dutch, gradually morphing into “Santa Claus.” Among his other names are Father Christmas in the United Kingdom, Papai Noel in Brazil, Dun Che Lao Ren (Christmas Old Man) in China, Julenissen (Christmas Gnome) in Norway, and Weihnachtsmann (Christmas Man) in Germany.

In America, the Rev. Clement Clark Moore’s 19th century poem A Visit from St. Nicholas turned him into a sleigh-driving elf. Later that century, newspaper artist Thomas Nast pictured Nicholas as a bulbous, red-suited North Pole resident, keeping lists of naughty and nice children.

Nowadays, his Santa-fied persona is everywhere — on cards, in songs, on storefronts, in ads and commercials, even in Christmas pageants that deal with the birth of Jesus.

The Rev. Michael McNally, a Catholic historian, finds the cultural appropriation of Nicholas ironic.

“Over the centuries, the church has tried to baptize secular customs,” McNally told the South Florida Sun Sentinel newspaper. “Here is a religious saint who has been secularized.”

— James D. Davis

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Written by Jim Davis

December 6, 2018 at 1:00 pm

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