It is the beginning of December and once again thoughts turn towards the Christmas season.
Around the globe trees are decorated and trimmings of all kinds begin to be displayed in the home. Our televisions become the tool of stores and supermarkets to pull at our heartstrings to get us to buy from them instead of a competitor. Yet, during this holiday time has the real identity of Saint Nicholas been forgotten and overshadowed by the more commercialised incarnation of Santa Claus?
Saint Nicholas of Myra was born in Asia Minor (present day Turkey), and died on December 6th and was made a saint between 340 and 350. The historical figure is venerated by the Anglican, Catholic and Orthodox Churches. Per legend, he was the only son of wealthy Christian parents, and was spiritual from a young age. In 325 he attended the First Council of Nicea convened by the Roman Emperor Constantine I, and was one of the bishops who signed the Nicene Creed.
However, it is after his death and the associated miracles where we see the links to the modern-day Santa Claus. Saint Nicholas is known as the ‘wonderworker’ due to the prays of others, and the wonderful events attributed to him. He was a gift-giver and tradition states that he secretly gave donations to the poor. One story claims that the Saint gave dowries to three poor daughters of a Christian women so that they would not be impoverished and fall into sinful ways. Another example has Saint Nicholas leaving coins in the shoes of those who left them out for him.
It is therefore easy to see how the legend of Saint Nicholas has manifested itself into Santa Claus. However, the figure of a jolly rounded man with a white beard has overshadowed the more historical figure of Saint Nicholas. The saint is also the champion of sailors, archers, brewers, scholars and of course, children.
Yet, after the Reformation in the sixteenth century the saint was removed from the more formal calendar of saints. Martin Luther did not believe in the roll of saints within the church and veneration moved from the religious into the home. It is this movement that ultimately led to a change from a historical Saint Nicholas to the more well-known Santa Claus. Santa Claus became the legendary figure who absorbed not only the representation of Saint Nicholas but also other images from folk-lore.
Nonetheless, this suggests that the modern world in which we live has forgotten the simple facts and truths that surround Saint Nicholas, and has allowed itself to be blinded by the more dominant figure of Santa Claus. But, does it matter? Perhaps it could be argued that it does, as only in looking at the ‘real’ figure of Saint Nicholas can those who venerate the Saint, and those who are excited by a visit from Santa Claus, truly understand the meaning behind the giving of gifts over the Christmas period.
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