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If Saint Nicholas had had a good team of lawyers, his morphing into the Americanized-commercialized figure of Santa Claus might never have happened. The frenzied November-through-January “season” of constant shopping, consumption and greed might have been avoided. Perhaps, even the non-religious (like myself) might be gladly sharing in the spiritual dimension of a holiday season focused on selfless giving and sacrifice for others. Such a season would desrve to be named for the Baby Jesus, whose followers could then be nurturing goodwill towards all, rather than fomenting culture war and nomenclature indignation. [see our prior post; Newsday, "Christmas Clashes"]
If St. Nicholas did sue Santa, he’d have a sleigh-full of amici and character witnesses in the battle against commericializing the holiday season:
Pope Benedict XVI: (Washington Post, “Pope: Christmas Polluted by Consumerism,” Dec. 11, 2005): “In today’s consumer society, this time (of the year) is unfortunately subjected to a sort of commercial ‘pollution’ that is in danger of altering its true spirit, which is characterized by meditation, sobriety and a joy that is not exterior but intimate.”
“Assembling the Nativity scene in the home can turn out to be a simple but effective way of presenting the faith to pass it on to one’s children. . . The Nativity scene helps us contemplate the mystery of the love of God, which is revealed to us in the poverty and simplicity of the grotto in Bethlehem.”
Adam Cohen (NYT, “This Season’s War Cry: Commercialize Christmas, or Else,” Dec. 4, 2005): “A 1931 Times roundup of Christmas sermons reported a common theme: ‘the suggestion that Christmas could not survive if Christ were thrust into the background by materialism’. . . . This year’s Christmas ‘defenders’ are not just tolerating commercialization – they’re insisting on it” [by insisting that stores use the word Christmas]
original Prof. Amy Uelman (Mirror of Justice, Chiming in on the “Christmas Wars,” Dec. 13, 2005): “It seems to me that it might be helpful to clarify that the ‘unwanted influence’ that ‘pollutes’ Christmas is not the diversity of faith traditions in our culture, but excessive consumerism and commercialism that distracts Christians from focusing—and perhaps even communicating to others — the poverty and simplicity at the heart of the message of Christmas.”
.Ellen Goodman (NYT/SeattleTimes, “O Durid tree, O Druid tree,” Dec. 9, 2005): “On the one hand, they want more Christ in Christmas; on the other hand, they want more Christmas in the marketplace. It makes one long for the screeds against commercialism. . . . But this year’s blow-up over church and store? A battle between Merry Christmas and Happy Holidays? I thought religion was supposed to remind us that there’s a separation between pew and marketplace.”
Rev. Tom St. Pierre: (Newsday, L.I., NY): ”The materialism, consumerism and the pressure to buy is annoying. When I turn on the radio before Thanksgiving and hear Christmas carols, I know it’s not for people to celebrate Christ, it’s for them to run up credit card debt.”How did a nice ex-Catholic like I get on this St. Nicholas theme? As often happens, a visit last week to see the Riskprof, started me on a wide-ranging tangent — this time, concerning St. Nicholas of Myra, whose feast day, December 6, is still quite important in many European countries, but passes quite unnoticed in most American homes.
Thanks to Wikipedia, to a Chronology of Santa Clause at the Christmas Archives, and especially to the extensive materials at the St. Nicholas Center, I learned (or re-learned) a lot about the historical Bishop Nicholas, and the myths and customs that grew around his legend, and that eventually led to the contemporary Santa Claus personage (and excesses). This St. Nicholas Timeline is a useful place to (re)acquaint yourself with his legend.
The historical Nicholas was born around 270 AD, and became Bishop of Myra (in modern-day Turkey) at an early age. He was credited with making many anonymous gifts from his personal fortune for those in need. According to The Christmas Archive, Nicholas “spent his life helping the poor and under-priviledged. He loved children and often went out at night disguised in a hooded cloak, to leave necessary gifts of money, clothing or food at the windows of unfortunate families.” (more info on his life here)
He is also known for his fervent defense of his Faith — most notably for punching the heretic Arius in the face at the first Council of Nicaea in 325. He was ejected from the Council for his offense and jailed, but was reportedly allowed back in after the Blessed Virgin Mary appeared in a dream to many of the Bishops, asking them to forgive Nicholas’ act, as it was done out of love for her Son. (Of course, a good defense lawyer could easily have gotten Nicholas an Adjournment in Contemplation of Dismissal, despite his prison record under the former emperor.)orig. How’d He Get to Bari?
For centuries after his death, many pilgrims went to Nicholas’ burial place at the Cathedral in Myra. However, his remains have been in situ at Bari, Italy [the ancestral home of my mother's family], for almost a thousand years. How did that happen? Well, pilgrimage tourism was big business in the first millennium (especially with the related basilica construction projects!), and poor St. Nicholas became involved in commercialization even back then. As the Saint Nicholas Center explains:“How did the Bishop of Myra become ‘Saint in Bari’? It’s a long way from Lycia to the eastern coast of Italy. “St. Nicholas’ tomb in Myra was a popular place of pilgrimage. . . If a town were fortunate enough to host such a significant religious site, it enjoyed considerable commercial benefit because pilgrims needed to be housed, fed, and otherwise provided for. After Myra fell under the control of the Seljuks, who were not sympathetic to Christian faith, Italian merchants in both Venice and Bari, saw an opportunity to bring such advantage to their cities . Their motives were opportunistic, but also spiritual, as there was real fear that pilgrimage could become difficult and dangerous or that the shrine might even be desecrated. . . .
“[The Barians broke open Nicolas'] tomb with an iron bar. The sailors spirited the bones away to the ship, escaping just ahead of the townspeople coming in hot pursuit. . . . When they arrived in Bari, May 9, 1087, the townspeople thronged to the harbor to welcome the saint’s remains. The returning men made a solemn vow to build a magnificent church to honor St. Nicholas. The crypt was completed by October 1089 and Pope Urban II laid the relics of St. Nicholas beneath the crypt’s altar, consecrating a shrine that became one of medieval Europe’s great pilgrimage centers.”The St. Nicholas Center also has a detailed discussion on The Origin of Santa Claus, asking “How did the kindly Christian saint, good Bishop Nicholas, become a roly-poly red-suited American symbol for merry holiday festivity and commercial activity?” After it explains the seminal role of the 1823 poem “A Visit from St. Nicholas” [a/k/a "The Night Before Christmas"], and many other developments, we learn:by Renee Graef
“Dozens of artists portrayed Santa in a wide range of styles, sizes, and colors, including Norman Rockwell on Saturday Evening Post covers. But it was in the 1930s that the now-familiar American Santa image solidified. Haddon Sundblom began thirty-five years of Coca-Cola Santa advertisements which finally established Santa as an icon of contemporary commercial culture. This Santa was life-sized, jolly, and wearing the now familiar red suit. He appeared in magazines, on billboards, and shop counters encouraging Americans to see Coke as the solution to’ “a thirst for all seasons.’
“By the 1950s Santa was turning up everywhere as a benign source of beneficence. This commercial success has led to the North American Santa Claus being exported around the world where he threatens to overcome the European St. Nicholas, who has retained his identity as a Christian bishop and saint.
. . . . “It’s been a long journey from the Fourth Century Bishop of Myra, St. Nicholas, who showed his devotion to God in extraordinary kindness and generosity, to America’s jolly Santa Claus. However, if you peel back the accretions he is still Nicholas, Bishop of Myra, whose caring surprises continue to model true giving and faithfulness.
“In the United States there is growing interest in the original saint to help recover the spiritual dimension of this festive time. For indeed, St. Nicholas, lover of the poor and patron saint of children, is a model of how Christians are meant to live. A priest, a bishop, Nicholas put Jesus Christ at the center of his life, his ministry, his entire existence. Families, churches, and schools are embracing true St Nicholas traditions as one way to claim the true center of Christmas—the birth of Jesus. Such a focus helps restore balance to increasingly materialistic and stress-filled Advent and Christmas seasons.”See Chronology of Santa Clause at the Christmas Archives, for a timeline showing theevolution from St. Nicholas to Mr. Claus..Here’s a comparison of Santa Claus and St. Nicholas, by J. Rosenthal & C. Myers:Santa Claus and St. NicholasEverybody loves Santa Claus. He embodies holiday cheer, happiness, fun, and gifts— warm happy aspects of the Christmas season. How do Santa Claus and St. Nicholas differ?
- Santa Claus belongs to childhood; St. Nicholas models for all of life.
- Santa Claus, as we know him, developed to boost Christmas sales —the commercial Christmas message; St. Nicholas told the story of Christ and peace, goodwill toward all —the hope-filled Christmas message.
- Santa Claus encourages consumption; St. Nicholas encourages compassion.
- Santa Claus appears each year to be seen and heard for a short time; St. Nicholas is part of the communion of saints, surrounding us always with prayer and example.
- Santa Claus flies through the air—from the North Pole; St. Nicholas walked the earth—caring for those in need.
- Santa Claus, for some, replaces the Babe of Bethlehem; St. Nicholas, for all, points to the Babe of Bethlehem.
- Santa Claus isn’t bad;
St. Nicholas is just better.—J. Rosenthal & C. MyersProf. Yabut adds:Santa Claus is flashy and out of shape, lets little people do his work for substandard wages, and uses credit cards extensively to buy popularity with expensive gifts. St. Nicholas is low-keyed and humble, and gives modest tokens of love and affection, paying cash.This No Santa Symbol (1994) is used by St. Nicholas Defense Actioncommittees in the Netherlands to tell Santa Claus to stay away until after St.Nicholas Day, December 6th. Even after December 6, I wish that Santa couldbe more like Nicholas. We are never going to separate Christmas or the otherDecember “holidays” from the notion of gift-giving. We can, nevertheless, strivefor the spirit of the original Nicholas and not his flashy-trashy-cashy alter ego.Our society, our children, and our sanity would all improve.Go here to read the influence of St. Nicholas on many American Christmas Customs — from candy canes, and fireplace stockings, to secret giving at night. Remember: “St. Nicholas gave gifts to those in greatest need – - the young and the most vulnerable. . . . He never wanted or expected anything in return.” [click hereto see how St. Nicholas is celebrated around the world]One final note about St. Nicholas: Patron saints are seen as special intercessors with God in Catholicism and other Faiths. St. Nicholas appears to be the patron saint of more causes than any other saint. He is “revered by many as the patron saint of seamen, merchants, archers, children, prostitutes, pharmacists, lawyers, pawnbrokers, prisoners, the city of Amsterdam and of Russia.” Indeed:“In the West, Nicholas is most widely known as the patron saint of children. . . In other parts of the world, however, St. Nicholas’ chief patronage is that of sailors and ships—offering safe voyage and protection from storms. Prisoners and others wrongly condemned are St. Nicholas’ third major category of patronage. It reveals his strong concern for justice, especially for innocent victims.”In addition, there are a great number of conditions and maladies associated with the protection of St. Nicholas: ”Danger from water, Fire, Gales, Hospitals, IInns, Marriages, Misunderstandings, Property, Rheumatism, Sea, Ships, Thunderstorms, Water, Protection from wolves and wildbeasts, Patron of cattle, horses, and sheep in Poland , Against imprisonment, Against robberies.”
I‘m not a believer in needing intercession between oneself and God (If God answers prayers on the “retail” level, He/She already knows all your facts, equities, and circumstances, and that is what should matter, not “who you know” in heaven, or who is serving as your mouthpiece).
Nonetheless, a lot of people seem to turn to St. Nicholas to help solve and avoid a lot of problems. And, don’t forget, dear skeptical reader, he’s the Patron Saint of Lawyers and Misunderstandings. Keep him on your Rolodex.Earlier today, I posted a number of haiku and senryu that seem pertinent to this posting. Here are a few more:Christmas dinner —
the handle broken off
a traditionstockings on the mantel . . .the child’s eyes follow sparksup the chimney
….. by Randy Brooksfrom School’s Out
week after Christmas
an empty throne
in the mall… by John Stevensonchristmas shoppingi work upa sweatlaid offshe asks the mall santa tobring dad a job… by ed markowskiChristmas Eve –bits of a price stickerstuck on my fingerupdate (Dec. 19, 2005): We at f/k/a hate to look a Gift Plugin the mouth, and we’re certainly not adverse to verse, but wedo believe St. Nicholas — whether his bones are in Bari or not —is spinning in his crypt, after seeing what the Wired GC hasdone to “A Visit from St. Nicholas” [a/k/a "The Night BeforeChristmas"] in Blawg Review #37. Ah, the artistic freedom —or license — that comes with anonymity.update (Dec. 20, 2005): Someone Googled timeline of SantaClause> tonight and this post came in as the 2nd result. That’snot so bad for a grinchy little weblog.