December 7, 2012

We Need a Little Visit from the Real Saint Nicholas

By Terry Mattingly

It happens in August or, at the very latest, September. You are reading the company newsletter. You turn the page and there it is in bold type—the date of the official Christmas party. Once, it was on December 23, then December 15, then December 10. It might even creep as early as December 6. Or perhaps the shock hits when your children start school and hear about plans for the Winter Solstice concert.

Christmas keeps expanding and morphing at the same time, spreading like an endless parking lot at a shopping mall. There may as well be teams of turkeys pulling the display-window sleighs and garlands of mistletoe and twinkle lights wrapped around the Jack-O-Lanterns.

And at the center of it all is the nonsectarian superman in the red-and-white suit. He's the jolly driver on a cultural steamroller called "The Holidays," the patron saint of a consumer-friendly creed of wonder, goodness, generosity, and vague faith. Young Mara Wilson, star of the 1994 movie Miracle on 34th Street, summed up these cultural rites: "This movie is about having faith in someone who can take care of you—like your mother, your father, or Santa Claus, or the tooth fairy, or God."

Hear that? Santa Claus, the tooth fairy, and God.

We look at the calendar and it all seems normal, because these patterns are a way of life for millions. We look at the calendar and we think that there is nothing we can do. We look at the calendar and we simply do not know what to say.

Perhaps we need to say: "O righteous Nicholas, in Myra you were shown forth as a holy minister fulfilling Christ's holy Gospel: for you did lay down your life for your flock and people and, O saint, you saved the innocent from unjust death."

We need help. Perhaps this is a job for St. Nicholas.

Dressed Like A Bishop

Just before dawn on the morning of December 6, my wife and I tiptoe happily through the house.

We know what we will find when we enter each bedroom—a pair of socks and shoes ready to receive candy, fruit, and a few simple gifts. To add our own silly wrinkle to centuries of tradition, we let our children put their shoes inside laundry baskets, which gives us extra room.

Nearby, there's an icon of a bishop in red robes, with a white stole over his shoulders containing a trinity of crosses. His hair and beard are white and his face is thin, which is natural for a monk accustomed to years of fasting. His right hand is raised in blessing and he holds a golden Gospel book in his left.

The feast day of St. Nicholas is December 6. In the fourth century, he served as bishop of the city of Myra in Asia Minor and, for centuries, he was one of Christendom's most beloved saints. This is not the man that we see in parades staged by merchants at Thanksgiving. The real St. Nicholas is the patron of orphans, sailors, and all who are in distress. Ironically, he also is the saint of merchants and pawnbrokers.

"St. Nicholas is supposed to be the very image of charity and concern for others, especially the poor," Father Constantine White, dean of St. Nicholas Orthodox Cathedral in Washington, D.C., once explained to me. "There is some link there to gift-giving, but nothing that resembles what has happened with Santa Claus."

Children in this parish, and others with the same name, often do not connect their patron saint with the commercialized character on TV. In other churches, St. Nicholas may not be mentioned at all. For this to change, it would take concerted efforts in Orthodox homes and parishes.

"I can guarantee you this," said Father Constantine, "any man in a red suit who shows up at this church around Christmas is going to be dressed like a bishop."

What Happened To St. Nicholas?

What happened to this beloved saint? Church history indicates that Nicholas was born into wealth and apparently gave his inheritance to the poor. He was elected bishop at age 30 and was listed as a participant in the Council of Nicea. When theological debate was not enough, Nicholas is said to have punched out the heretic Arius, who argued that Jesus was not fully divine. Later, the bishop was imprisoned under the Emperor Diocletian and released under Constantine. He died on December 6,343.

A famous tradition is captured in an icon called the Charity of St. Nicholas, which shows him visiting a poor family at night, carrying a bag of gold. The father could not provide dowries for his daughters, which meant they could not marry. Nicholas rescued them from slavery or prostitution by dropping gold coins through a window. The gifts fell into their stockings, which had been hung up to dry.

The story of the white-haired saint in red robes, bringing gifts in the night, grew in popularity through the centuries especially with children.

The rest is history. Sailors spread the saint's fame along the European coast and, over time, his lore blended with other legends, especially after the birth of Protestantism. The result: Father Christmas, Kris Kringle, Père Noël; and many others, including Sinter Klaas, who came with the Dutch to a settlement that became the media and advertising capital of the world-New York City. Then an Episcopalian named Clement C. Moore wrote the 1823 poem, "A Visit from St. Nicholas," with its immortal words, "'Twas the night before Christmas." Then the legendary cartoonist Thomas Nast, Coca-Cola, Sears, and armies of ad agencies got hold of St. Nick.

Today, it's hard to see the holy bishop in the fat, sassy, and omnipresent images of Santa Claus. It's a struggle to link his life with the words of Christ that are read at the saint's feast: "Blessed are you poor, for yours is the kingdom of God; Blessed are you that hunger, for you shall be satisfied; Blessed are you that weep now, for you shall laugh. . . ."

Embracing The Real St. Nicholas

I am convinced there are two timely reasons for Holy Orthodoxy to embrace St. Nicholas again and strive to celebrate his feast day as part of what should be a quiet, reflective, penitential time of year—Nativity Lent (Advent in the West).

First, I think we can publicly deliver this message to our culture: "Yes, there is a St. Nicholas." If churches put that headline on top of advertisements in local newspapers, I think people would pay attention. A search on the World Wide Web for resources about St. Nicholas will find references in the most unlikely of places, even in sites linked to Baptist churches, the Assemblies of God, and other Protestant groups. Some people are searching for their Christian roots.

The bottom line: We can give the man his day, calling attention to the start of a season that should set us apart from our culture. And we can tell our children the truth about the modest gift-giving traditions linked to this saint, along with telling them the stories of his unique bond with the poor. We can urge our children, during Nativity Lent, to focus on giving to others.

In fact, I think our churches can offer St. Nicholas as a unique and evocative figure to help us call attention to an urgent need-increased efforts to help those caught in crisis pregnancies and their children, born and unborn. He is, after all, the patron saint of endangered and distressed children. Each week of Nativity Lent, the faithful could bring diapers, baby food, blankets, clothes, and other necessities to be distributed in mission projects in the community.

Can you think of a more powerful, appropriate saint to serve as patron for our pro-life efforts?

Second, I think that we must find a way to reclaim the uniqueness of the pre-Christmas season, if we are ever going to manage to celebrate a Nativity Feast that is more than a riot of consumerism followed by bowl games and the NFL playoffs.

The timing may be right. For many Americans, "The Holidays" have become a nightmare, a time of spiritual whiplash when what is supposed to be a season of joy often turns into an acid bath of cynicism and failed dreams.

The respected church-growth researcher Lyle Schaller once told me that there are two times each year when people who rarely if ever attend church are open to stepping inside a sanctuary. As everyone knows, there are flocks of Easter Christians who choose that season to get dressed up and make their annual appearances at church. But if Easter is the season of choice for marginal Christians, Christmas is the time when unchurched people-or those who have been inactive for years-may sneak into worship.

Many crave true beauty in a season of tinsel and cheap sentiment. Many seek fellowship during a time of year that pours salt into the wounds of those with broken families and fading dreams. Others may survive the blitz of high-pressure advertising, shallow parties, crazed shopping, long journeys, tense family reunions, and dumb TV specials and then say, "Didn't Christmas used to mean more than this? Where is the wonder of Christmas?"

The time to celebrate Christmas is in the twelve days of Christmas, not in Nativity Lent. I am convinced that if our churches openly offer a unique, holy, and sane approach to celebrating these seasons, some souls will come seeking shelter from the storm.

Yes, there is a St. Nicholas. He was a saint who served his Master well. Yes, he points forward to the Mother and her Holy Child and the true meaning of Christmas.

We have these gifts and we must share them with others.

Prof. Terry Mattingly is associate professor of mass media & religion at Palm Beach Atlantic College and a senior fellow at the Council for Christian Colleges and Universities. He writes the national "On Religion" column for the Scripps Howard News Service in Washington, D.C. He is a member of St. Mary's Orthodox Church in West Palm Beach, Florida.

From Again Magazine, Vol. 23, No. 4, October-December, 2001, p. 4,5.