Do You Believe in Santa Claus?

Today is Saint Nicholas Day.  Nicholas was born a Greek in the Asia Minor city of Patara (Lycia et Pamphylia) around A.D. 270 on, ironically, the Ides of March.  Patara was a port on the Mediterranean Sea, and lived in the village of Mura in Lycia (now part of modern-day Demre, Turkey)

At the time, the region was Greek in its heritage, culture, and outlook and politically part of the Roman diocese of Asia.  Nicholas was the only son of wealthy Christian parents named Epiphanius (Ἐπιφάνιος) and Johanna (Ἰωάννα) according to some accounts and Theophanes (Θεοφάνης) and Nonna (Νόννα) according to others.   He was very religious from an early age and according to legend, Nicholas was said to have rigorously observed the canonical fasts of Wednesdays and Fridays.  His 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 (apprenticed, sort of like a padawan in Star Wars) the young Nicholas as a reader, and later ordained him a presbyter (priest).

On Aug. 26, 1071 Romanus IV, Emperor of the Byzantine Empire faced Sultan Alp Arslan of the Seljuk Turks in the Battle of Manzikert. The battle ended in humiliating defeat and capture for Romanus.  As a result, the Empire temporarily lost control over most of Asia Minor.   The Byzantines would regain its control during the reign of Alexius I Comnenus .  But early in his reign, Myra was overtaken by the Islamic invaders.  Taking advantage of the confusion, sailors from Bari in Apulia seized part of the remains of the saint from his burial church in Myra, over the objections of the Orthodox monks.

Returning to Bari, they brought the remains with them and cared for them. The remains arrived on May 9, 1087. There are numerous variations of this account. In some versions, those taking the relics are characterized as thieves or pirates, in others they are said to have taken them in response to a vision wherein Saint Nicholas himself appeared and commanded that his relics be moved in order to preserve them from the impending Muslim conquest.  Currently at Bari, there are two churches at his shrine, one Roman Catholic and one Orthodox.  Legend has it that other sailors took some of Nicholas’ remains to Ireland.

When we think of Santa Claus, derived from the Dutch name Sinter Klaas, we think of the northern European legend in the red suit.  Indeed, the Bishop of Myra’s outer robes were red.  The traditional Santa Claus, the patron saint of children, coopers, sailors, fishermen, merchants, broadcasters, the falsely accused, repentant thieves, pharmacists, archers, and pawnbrokers, is renowned for bringing toys to children in a reindeer-powered sleigh.

Critics chide those who encourage children to believe in Santa, thinking he is a symbol of modern commercialism.  In his present incarnation, he is.  If religion hadn’t been removed from the schools, children everywhere would know that Santa Claus – Saint Nicholas – was venerated for his charity, his miracles, and  love of children.

An orphan himself, he chose early on to devote his life and his inherited wealth to orphaned children.  Living in a port city, he made many journeys around the Mediterranean.  During one voyage, two sailors fell into the sea.  Nicholas leapt in to save them.  During a famine in Myra in 311-312, a ship was in the port at anchor, loaded with wheat for the Emperor in Constantinople. Nicholas 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 suffer any loss 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, although the wheat removed in Myra was enough for two full years and could even be used for sowing.

He adopted an orphaned young boy in Italy as his page.  The boy was said to be known for his kindness to the other children, and as an apprentice carpenter, made toys for them.  Nicholas also took pity on three village girls who, having no dowry for marriage, were to be sold into slavery.  During the night, he dropped a sack of gold down the family’s chimney, which was said to have landed in the girl’s stocking, which was drying over the kitchen fireplace.  He was also said to have resurrected, in God’s name, three boys who had been murdered by a local butcher.

The bedtime stories of Santa Claus are for little children.  About the time they stop believing in the Tooth Fairy and the Easter Bunny, someone inevitably tells them that there’s no such thing as Santa.  As most people don’t know the story of Saint Nicholas, parents shrug their shoulders in helplessness.  They tell their little ones that someday they’ll learn about the true spirit of Christmas and they’ll believe again.  If you’ve clung to your bitter disillusionment over the existence of Santa Claus, read about the true story of Nicholas, the Bishop of Myra, Defender of Orthodoxy and Servant of Christ.

The real story of Santa Claus is for true believers.

Published in: on December 6, 2012 at 4:09 pm  Comments (7)  

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