05 December 2010

Saint Nicholas of Myra in Lycia, the Origin of Santa Claus

Saint Nicholas (Greek: Άγιος Νικόλαος, Aghios ["holy"] Nicolaos ["victory of the people"]) (270–6 December 346) is the canonical and most popular name for Nikolaos of Myra, a saint and Greek Bishop of Myra (Demre, in Lycia, part of modern-day Turkey). Because of the many miracles attributed to his intercession, he is also known as Nikolaos the Wonderworker (Greek: Νικόλαος ο Θαυματουργός, Nikolaos o Thaumaturgos). He had a reputation for secret gift-giving, such as putting coins in the shoes of those who left them out for him, and thus became the model for Santa Claus, whose English name comes from the Dutch Sinterklaas. His reputation evolved among the faithful, as is common for early Christian saints. In 1087, his relics were furtively translated to Bari, in southeastern Italy; for this reason, he is also known as Nikolaos of Bari.His feastday is December 6.

The historical Saint Nicholas is remembered and revered among Catholic and Orthodox Christians. He is also honored by various Anglican and Lutheran churches. Saint Nicholas is the patron saint of sailors, merchants, archers, thieves, children, and students in Greece, Belgium, France, Romania, Bulgaria, Georgia, Albania, Russia, the Republic of Macedonia, Slovakia, Serbia, and Montenegro. He is also the patron saint of Aberdeen, Amsterdam, Barranquilla, Bari, Beit Jala, Fribourg, Huguenots, Liverpool, Siggiewi, and Lorraine. In 1809, the New-York Historical Society convened and retroactively named Santa Claus the patron saint of New Amsterdam, the historical name for New York City. He was also a patron of the Varangian Guard of the Byzantine emperors, who protected his relics in Bari.

Although he is the patron saint of Russia, and the model for a northern invention such as Santa Claus, Nicholas of Myra was Grecian. Saint Nicholas (Bishop of Myra) replaced Sabino as the patron saint in Asia Minor during the third century in the Greek colony of Patara, Demre, Lycia (part of modern-day Turkey), at a time when the region was part of the Roman province of Asia and was Hellenistic in its culture and outlook. He was the only son of wealthy Christian parents named Epiphanus and Johanna, and was very religious from an early age. Nicholas was said to have rigorously observed the canonical fasts of Wednesdays and Fridays. His wealthy parents died in an epidemic while Nicholas was still young and he was raised by his uncle—also named Nicholas—who was the bishop of Patara. He tonsured the young Nicholas as a reader, and later as presbyter (priest). Nicholas also spent a stint at a monastery named Holy Sion, which had been founded by his uncle.

A terrible famine struck the island and a malicious butcher lured three little children into his house, where he slaughtered and butchered them, placing their remains in a barrel to cure, planning to sell them off as ham. Saint Nicholas, visiting the region to care for the hungry, not only saw through the butcher's horrific crime but also resurrected the three boys from the barrel by his prayers. The children may have been three clerks who wished to stay the night. The man murdered them, and was advised by his wife to dispose of them by turning them into meat pies. The Saint saw through this and brought the men back to life.

However, in his most famous exploit, a poor man had three daughters but could not afford a proper dowry for them. This meant that they would remain unmarried and probably, in absence of any other possible employment would have to become prostitutes. Hearing of the poor man's plight, Nicholas decided to help him. Being too modest to help the man in public (or to save the man the humiliation of accepting charity), he went to his house under the cover of night and threw three purses (one for each daughter) filled with gold coins through the window opening into the man's house.

One version has him throwing one purse for three consecutive nights. Another has him throw the purses over a period of three years, each time the night before one of the daughters comes "of age". Invariably, the third time the father lies in wait, trying to discover the identity of their benefactor. In one version the father confronts the saint, only to have Saint Nicholas say it is not him he should thank, but God alone. In another version, Nicholas learns of the poor man's plan and drops the third bag down the chimney instead; a variant holds that the daughter had washed her stockings that evening and hung them over the embers to dry, and that the bag of gold fell into the stocking.

During a great famine that the Bishop of Myra experienced, a ship was is in the port at anchor, which was loaded with wheat for the Emperor in Byzantium. He invited the sailors to unload a part of the wheat to help in time of need. The sailors at first disliked the request, because the wheat had to be weighed accurately and delivered to the Emperor. Only when Nicholas promised them that they would not take any damage for their consideration, the sailors agreed. When they arrived later in the capital, they made a surprising find. The weight of the load had not changed. The removed wheat in Myra was even enough for two full years and could even be used for sowing.

Among the Greeks and Italians he is a favourite of sailors, fishermen, ships and sailing. As such he has become over time the patron saint of several cities maintaining harbours. In centuries of Greek folklore, Nicholas was seen as "The Lord of the Sea", often described by modern Greek scholars as a kind of Christianised version of Poseidon. In modern Greece, he is still easily among the most recognisable saints and 6 December finds many cities celebrating their patron saint. He is also the patron saint of all of Greece.

In Russia, Saint Nicholas' memory is celebrated on every Thursday of the year (together with the Apostles), and special hymns to him are found in the liturgical text known as the Octoechos. Soon after the transfer of Saint Nicholas' relics from Myra to Bari, a Russian version of his Life and an account of the transfer of his relics were written by a contemporary to this event. Devotional akathists and canons have been composed in his honour, and are frequently chanted by the faithful as they ask for his intercession. He is mentioned in the Liturgy of Preparation during the Divine Liturgy (Eastern Orthodox Eucharist) and during the All-Night Vigil. Many Orthodox churches will have his icon, even if they are not named after him.

In late medieval England, on Saint Nicholas' Day parishes held Yuletide "boy bishop" celebrations. As part of this celebration, youths performed the functions of priests and bishops, and exercised rule over their elders. Today, Saint Nicholas is still celebrated as a great gift-giver in several Western European countries. According to one source, medieval nuns used the night of 6 December to anonymously deposit baskets of food and clothes at the doorsteps of the needy. According to another source, on 6 December every sailor or ex-sailor of the Low Countries (which at that time was virtually all of the male population) would descend to the harbour towns to participate in a church celebration for their patron saint. On the way back they would stop at one of the various Nicholas fairs to buy some hard-to-come-by goods, gifts for their loved ones and invariably some little presents for their children. While the real gifts would only be presented at Christmas, the little presents for the children were given right away, courtesy of Saint Nicholas. This and his miracle of him resurrecting the three butchered children, made Saint Nicholas a patron saint of children and later students as well.
Among Albanians, Saint Nicholas is known as Shen'Kollë and is venerated by most Catholic families, even those from villages that are devoted to other saints. The Feast of Saint Nicholas is celebrated on the eve of 5 December, known as Shen'Kolli i Dimnit (Saint Nicholas of Winter), as well as on the commemoration of the interring of his bones in Bari, the eve of 8 May, known as Shen'Kolli i Majit (Saint Nicholas of May). Albanian Catholics often swear by Saint Nicholas, saying "Pasha Shejnti Shen'Kollin!" ("May I see Holy Saint Nicholas!"), indicating the importance of this saint in Albanian culture, especially among the Albanians of Malësia. On the eve of his feast day, Albanians will light a candle and abstain from meat, preparing a feast of roasted lamb and pork, to be served to guests after midnight. Guests will greet each other, saying, "Nata e Shen'Kollit ju nihmoftë!" ("May the Night of Saint Nicholas help you!") and other such blessings. The bones of Albania's greatest hero, Gjergj Kastrioti, were also interred in the Church of Saint Nicholas in Lezha, Albania, upon his death.

Saint Nicholas is a popular subject portrayed on countless Eastern Orthodox icons, particularly Russian ones. He is depicted as an Orthodox bishop, wearing the omophorion and holding a Gospel Book, sometimes he is depicted wearing the Eastern Orthodox mitre, sometimes he is bareheaded. Iconographically, Nicholas is depicted as an elderly man with a short, full white beard and balding head. In commemoration of the miracle attributed to him by tradition at the Ecumenical Council of Nicea, he is sometimes depicted with Christ over his left shoulder holding out a Gospel Book to him and the Theotokos over his right shoulder holding the omophorion. Because of his patronage of mariners, occasionally Saint Nicholas will be shown standing in a boat or rescuing a drowning sailor.

In Roman Catholic iconography, Saint Nicholas is depicted as a bishop, wearing the insignia of this dignity: a red bishop's cloak, a red miter and a bishop's crozier. The episode with the three dowries is commemorated by showing him holding in his hand either three purses, three coins or three balls of gold. Depending on whether he is depicted as patron saint of children or sailors, his images will be completed by a background showing ships, children or three figures climbing out of a wooden barrel (the three slaughtered children he resurrected).

In a strange twist, the three gold balls referring to the dowry affair are sometimes metaphorically interpreted as being oranges or other fruits. As in the Low Countries in medieval times oranges most frequently came from Spain, this led to the belief that the Saint lives in Spain and comes to visit every winter bringing them oranges, other 'wintry' fruits and tales of magical creatures.

The tradition of Saint Nicholas Day, usually on 6 December, is a festival for children in many countries in Europe related to surviving legends of the saint, and particularly his reputation as a bringer of gifts. The American Santa Claus, as well as the Anglo-Canadian and British Father Christmas, derive from these legends. "Santa Claus" is itself derived from the Dutch Sinterklaas.

In Greece, Saint Nicholas does not carry an especial association with gift-giving, as this tradition is carried over to St. Basil of Cesarea, celebrated on New Year's Day. St. Nicholas being the protector of sailors, he is considered the patron saint of the Greek navy, war and merchant alike and his day is marked by festivities aboard all ships and boats, at sea and in port. It is also associated with the preceding feasts of St. Barbara (4 December), St. Savvas (5 December), and the following feast of St. Anne (9 December); all these are often collectively called the "Nikolobárbara", and are considered a succession of days that heralds the onset of truly wintry cold weather in the country. Therefore by tradition, homes should have already been laid with carpets, removed for the warm season, by St. Andrew's Day (30 November), a week ahead of the Nikolobárbara.

In Serbia and Republic of Macedonia, Saint Nicholas is celebrated as patron saint of many families, through the feast preserved amongst Serbs and inhabitants of Macedonia, widely known as slava. Since the feast of Saint Nicholas always falls in the fasting period preceding the Christmas, feast is celebrated according to the Eastern Orthodox Church fasting rules. Fasting refers in this context to the eating of a restricted diet for reasons of Religion.

In the Republic of Bulgaria, Saint Nicholas is one of the most celebrated saints. Many churches and monasteries are named after him. As a holiday Saint Nicholas is celebrated on the 6th of December.
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