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Holiday Almanac: Here’s 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.

St Nicholas at St Demetrios

St. Nicholas icon at St. Demetrios Greek Orthodox Church, Fort Lauderdale. (Photo by James Davis)

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 modern pawnshops.

Nicholas is also 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 innkeeper, 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.

Merry Old Santa Claus by Thomas Nast, 1863

Merry Old Santa Claus by Thomas Nast, 1863. (Public domain via Wikimedia)

In America, the Rev. Clement Clark Moore’s 18th 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.

Many people also bear his name in one way or another — as in Nico, Nicholas, Nikola, Nichols, Nicholson, Cole, Coleson, Nicholai, Klaus, and of course Claus.

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

Written by Jim Davis

December 6, 2019 at 10:33 am

Advent: Preparation for Christmas

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advent wreath, 648p

Image by Gerhard Gellinger from Pixabay

Today is the first Sunday of Advent, the season of preparation for Christmas. Advent, which is marked by the four Sundays before that day, is celebrated mainly in traditional churches, especially Episcopal, Lutheran and Roman Catholic.

The season’s central symbol, the Advent wreath, is a leafy horizontal circle with four candles, a new one lighted each Sunday. Each church lights a large wreath, and many homes of the faithful often have smaller versions. Although the custom originated in western Europe, Hispanic Catholic parishes have adopted the wreath as well.

Another Advent custom is the Jesse Tree, often decorated by children in church schools. The tree, which need not be a pine tree, is draped with homemade representations of biblical prophecies — scrolls, the Lion of Judah, seraphim, David’s harp and other symbols — believed by Christians to have foretold Jesus’ life.

— James D. Davis

Written by Jim Davis

December 1, 2019 at 12:05 pm

Holiday Almanac: Easter celebrates triumph over death

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Stained-glass window

Resurrection window at Ascension Church, Boca Raton, Fla. (Photo by Jim Davis)

Christians celebrate today as Easter, commemorating the resurrection of Jesus Christ. The greatest holiday of the Christian year, Easter confirms for believers the hope of life after death.

As related in the New Testament books of Matthew, Mark, Luke and John, the body of Jesus was wrapped and buried in a rocky tomb near Jerusalem. Women came three days later to embalm the corpse, but found it missing. Jesus then began appearing to various groups of his followers, with the promise: “Because I live, you too shall live.”

For traditional churches, the change in liturgical colors is striking. During the Lenten season, which begins with Ash Wednesday (March 6 this year), altars and vestments took on purple, the color of royalty. The color hearkens to the story of Jesus’ suffering, in which Roman soldiers draped him in a purple robe to mock his claim to be a king.

On Easter, however, the cloths are all changed to white — symbolizing joy, glory and triumph — as believers rejoice over Christ’s resurrection. The color predominates even in church floral decorations, with white, trumpet-like Easter lilies.

Sunrise services are common Easter Sunday celebrations. The events are often sponsored by two or more churches, or even by whole ministerial associations. Choirs also sing joyous hymns of the hope for eternal life.

But Easter still lies ahead for the world’s quarter-billion Eastern Orthodox Christians, who reckon some holy days by the ancient Julian calendar instead of the contemporary Gregorian calendar. Easter for the Orthodox will fall on April 28 this year.

— Jim Davis

Written by Jim Davis

April 21, 2019 at 3:00 am

Holiday Almanac: Good Friday recalls death of Jesus

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Crucifix window at St Helen Church, Lauderdale Lakes, Fla. (Photo by Jim Davis)

Crucifix window at St Helen Church, Lauderdale Lakes, Fla. (Photo by Jim Davis)

Christians today mourn the death of Jesus Christ as Good Friday. Despite his agonizing death on a cross, the holiday is called “Good” because Christians believe Jesus’ death was a sacrifice for all humanity’s sins. ‘”The lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world,” the New Testament calls him.

In Catholic churches, the traditional Good Friday service includes the Stations of the Cross, a series of meditations based on the 14 traditional events between Jesus’ condemnation in a Roman court and his burial. The Stations are represented with plaques or bas-reliefs around the church auditorium.

Catholics also hold a ‘‘veneration of the cross” ceremony, during which churchgoers approach the altar to kiss the feet of a statue of the crucified Jesus.

Sometimes observed by ecumenical Protestants is Tenebrae, in which a church is slowly darkened to illustrate Jesus’ death, then relighted to show his resurrection on Easter Sunday.

Another type of service is Tre Ore, a three-hour service examining each of the “Seven Last Words” Jesus uttered from the cross. The service is useful for having seven or more ministers take part.

— James D. Davis

Written by Jim Davis

April 19, 2019 at 3:00 am

Holiday Almanac: Palm Sunday, a day for a King

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Цвети (улазак Христа у Јерусалим)

Triumphal entry of Jesus into Jerusalem, Nativity of the Theotokos Church, Macedonia. (Photo by Petar Milošević, via Wikimedia)

Palm Sunday today starts Holy Week, the most solemn yet joyous time on the church calendar. Palm Sunday takes its name from an impromptu welcome given Jesus as he entered Jerusalem on the last week before his crucifixion.

According to the Gospel accounts, Jesus entered Jerusalem on a donkey, with people paving the street before him with coats and palm fronds. That week he preached in the Temple and celebrated Passover with his disciples. Their observance of the Seder, the ritual meal of Passover, has become known in churches as the Last Supper.

Churches commonly celebrate Palm Sunday with special musical programs and Easter pageants. They often pass out palm leaves, sometimes tied into the shape of a cross. In Catholic and some Episcopal churches, extra palm leaves are burned and the ashes saved for Ash Wednesday the following year.

Although Palm Sunday marks what is called the Triumphal Entry of Jesus into Jerusalem, the story turned tragic later that week. Maundy Thursday recalls his last Seder; and Good Friday mourns his death. But it’s followed by Easter Sunday, celebrating his Resurrection.

— James D. Davis

Written by Jim Davis

April 14, 2019 at 7:00 am

The St. Patrick you didn’t know: Meet the man behind the legends

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Today is St. Patrick’s Day (March 17), but much of what you’ve heard about him is inaccurate. He’s usually shown in green but more likely wore blue. He didn’t drive snakes out of Ireland. And he wasn’t Irish or even named Patrick. At least, not at first.

He was born in Roman Britain in the fifth century as Maewyn Succat, the son of a church deacon. He was kidnapped as a boy to pirates, who sold him into slavery in Ireland.

1Patrick

Statue of St. Patrick at the Catholic church named for him on Miami Beach. (Photo by Jim Davis)

Maewyn lived as a shepherd for six years, until he was able to flee and return to his family. But his lonely years of shepherding were not wasted: He often lost himself in prayer and grew closer to God. As he said in his Confession:

“More and more the love of God increased, and my sense of awe before God. Faith grew, and my spirit was moved, so that in one day I would pray up to one hundred times, and at night perhaps the same.”

Even after he escaped Ireland, the land called to him: He had a vision in which the Irish were begging him to “come and walk among us again.” He went to France, studied with the Church and was ordained a bishop. He took the name Patricius or Patrick, which means “father figure.”

He returned to Ireland in 432, then set up a base in the north. He was preceded in Ireland by St. Palladius, who came three years earlier. Palladius founded three churches, but made little impact and left to serve in Scotland.

Patrick, however, was more effective, blending diplomacy with preaching, knowledge of Celtic culture, and occasional confrontations. A popular story has him lighting a bonfire near the hill of Tara, competing with a bonfire for a Druidic deity.

King Laeghairé determined at first to kill Patrick; but to the king’s shock, Patrick marched into his camp and some of his own family were converted. The king, obviously impressed, permitted Patrick to preach wherever he wished.

For four decades, Patrick and his followers built churches all over Ireland, baptizing thousands, ordaining priests, often converting the sons and daughters of nobles and Druids. They also sometimes brokered peace among fierce Celtic chieftains.

2Patrick

St. Patrick icon at St. Demetrios Greek Orthodox Church, Fort Lauderdale. (Photo by Jim Davis)

So great was Patrick’s appeal that it survived a literal gaffe while baptizing a local prince. He accidentally stuck the pointed tip of his crosier into the man’s foot — causing it to gush blood — yet the prince didn’t flinch. When Patrick apologized for the injury, the prince said he thought it was part of the ceremony.

Other stories multiplied about him as well:

  • He drove all snakes out of Ireland, although none are believed to have ever been there.
  • He fought off a horde of demons who tried to disturb his prayer retreat on an island.
  • He performed a thousand miracles during his time in Ireland.
  • He used a shamrock, a three-leaf clover, to illustrate the godly Trinity of Father, Son and Holy Spirit.

Whatever the truth of such stories, his dedication and legacy are beyond question. His life and work inspired the sixth-century St. Finian, whose monasteries turned out the so-called Twelve Apostles of Ireland. Gradually, they won the island to Christianity.

Oh, and that color? Well, historians say the saint wore a light shade called St. Patrick’s Blue. The change to green began around 1798, with the Irish Rebellion against England.

Patrick died on March 17, 461 or 462, at Saull, the site of his first church. He is believed to be buried at Down Cathedral in Northern Ireland.

One of the most popular saints, Patrick is honored not only in Ireland but also by Anglicans and Eastern Orthodox Christians. And Hallmark reports that Americans exchange 12 million cards on St. Patrick’s Day each year.

— JIM DAVIS

Written by Jim Davis

March 17, 2019 at 4:25 am

Dust to dust: Christians observe Ash Wednesday today

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Ash Wed forehead (2)

Ashes on a Christian for Ash Wednesday. Public domain photo by Jennifer Balaska, via Wikimedia Commons.

Christians in several traditions observe today (March 6) as Ash Wednesday, the start of six weeks of Lent. The season is a period of solemnity before Good Friday, the traditional observance of Jesus’ death, which will fall on April 19 this year.

Ash Wednesday takes its name from ashes daubed on the faithful as a sign of penitence, with the traditional words, “Remember you are dust and will return to dust.”

Lent is a somber season marked by prayer, introspection and repentance. For Catholics, it also includes fasting and abstinence from meat on Fridays for those 14 years and older.

Eastern Orthodox Christians, who still use the ancient Julian calendar, will begin Lent on April 11 this year. They’ll also celebrate Easter on a different date this year: April 28. For Catholic and Protestant Christians, Easter will fall on April 21.

— James D. Davis

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