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December 20, 2014

From Basil the Great To Santa Claus

In a lecture delivered in Athens to natives of Nafpaktos, His Eminence Metropolitan Hierotheos of Nafpaktos and Agiou Vlasiou examines briefly some of the characteristics of St. Basil described in the dismissal hymn for his feast. He elucidates the process by which the figure and personality of St. Basil underwent a transformation in Europe and the New World and became confused with Father Christmas or Santa Claus, who is associated with commerce, advertising, consumption, optimism and politics. He also considers the consequences of this distortion in personal and social life.

The issue I chose to examine today to your love is titled "St. Basil the Great and Santa Claus". It may seem that it lacks originality, but as you will see below it is of great importance for our time.

1. The Personality of Basil the Great

Basil the Great was a great Father of the Church, but also an ecumenical teacher. It is important to realize that the title "Great" was given to him by his siblings, which shows the great influence he had on his family. Of his nine siblings, five are known saints of our Church.

We will not present the details of his personality, but we will briefly expound on three points which are described in his dismissal hymn. The dismissal hymn is as follows:

Your voice resounded throughout the world that received your word by which, in a godly manner, you taught dogma, clarified the nature of beings, and set in order the character of people. Venerable father, Royal Priesthood, intercede to Christ God to grant us great mercy.

The three points we will highlight are as follows: first, "you taught dogma"; second, you "clarified the nature of beings"; and third, you "set in order the character of people".

A. "You taught dogma"

Basil the Great was a bishop during a very difficult period in Church history. I mean the period between the First Ecumenical Synod that took place in Nicaea of Bithynia in 325 AD and the Second Ecumenical Synod that took place in 381. Basil the Great faced all the theological issues of his time with wisdom, discernment, judiciousness and from a theological perspective, and although he reposed at the age of 49 in 379, just two years prior to the Second Ecumenical Synod of 381, he had prepared the theological ground on which the Synod was based.

Basil the Great dogmatized about the Triune God using new terminology, and this was done to address the various heresies that had emerged and which used ancient Greek philosophy to understand revealed truth. The Luminary of Caesarea dogmatized about the Holy Spirit and the relationship between the Persons of the Holy Trinity. What is important and unprecedented, even for philosophy, is that for the first time Basil the Great equated hypostasis with prosopon. Until then prosopon meant "mask", the mask worn by actors when playing a role, so a prosopon was a patch over our being. Basil the Great developed the idea that a person is not a patch over our being, but it is identified with the hypostasis, that is, it makes a being an actual being.

Basil the Great developed all of this theology "in a manner suitable to God", precisely because he lived existential theology, he had experiences of God, as we can see in his texts. His theology was not academic, rational, emotional or aesthetic, but purely existential.

B. You "clarified the nature of beings"

In ancient Greek philosophy they were constantly talking about the beings that exist in the world, and the being after which beings are copied. A basic central question of ancient Greek metaphysics, as Heidegger argues, is "why is there something rather than nothing?"

Basil the Great studied ancient Greek philosophy in Athens, as well as all the sciences of his day that dealt with beings. According to the testimony of Saint Gregory the Theologian, who was a personal friend and classmate of his in Athens, he learned the nine sciences of his day. If you read his "On the Six Days of Creation", which is his interpretation of the creation of the world in six days, you will find that in this book he had gathered all of the scientific knowledge of his time about the world and its creation. He studied nature and beings - plants, insects, birds, fish, animals, etc. - and he saw the essence of beings, the energies of God within creation, and the entelechy and the teleology of all perceptible things. Basil the Great loved nature and in his letters he made wonderful descriptions of the landscape in which he lived his monastic life near the Iris River.

C. You "set in order the character of people"

Basil the Great was not a theoretical theologian and scientist, but he was a great reformer. He cared for the slaves, the poor, for the reduction of the taxes of the people, for the injustices that existed against certain people, and he organized philanthropy. He is the founder of philanthropic institutions. Until then the State had not developed social welfare. Influenced by Christian principles, Basil the Great developed philanthropy to a great extent. His "Basiliada" is known to history. Sozomen the historian refers to it, saying "The basiliada is the most celebrated hospice for the poor. It was established by Basil, bishop of Caesarea, from whom it received its name in the beginning and retains it until today." Saint Gregory the Theologian speaks of the "new city" where "disease is regarded in a philosophical light, and disaster is thought a blessing, and sympathy is put to the test." This was a new city. Basil the Great, in his 94th letter to Elias, gives testimony regarding this center of philanthropy. Within the Basiliada there was a magnificent Cathedral with houses around the church for the Bishop and the Clergy, houses for hosting rulers and public officials, a hostel for hosting foreigners and visitors to the city, a hospital for treating the sick with the necessary staff of physicians, nurses, drivers, pack animals, and homes for housing the necessary laboratories and maintenance workers. There is information preserved by Saint Gregory the Theologian that lepers, who at that time were outcasts from society because they had the incurable and contagious disease of leprosy, were cared for by Basil the Great himself, and even after cleaning their wounds he would embrace them to show them his love. Who would do this today?

Most importantly, Basil the Great did all this philanthropic work to show his personal example, since although he was wealthy he gave all his wealth to those in need, and when he died his only property was a cassock made of hair and a few books. But his love was such, that at his funeral it was so crowded that people died.

The social contribution of Basil the Great combined with his love, his intelligence and his miraculous interventions is shown in the incident for which there is the tradition of Vasilopita, as stated by Professor Phaedon Koukoules during the presentation of Demetrios Loukatos. According to him: "When Basil the Great was Bishop of Caesarea, the Governor of Cappadocia went there with a harsh disposition to collect taxes. The fearful residents sought the protection of their shepherd. He told them: 'I urge each of you to bring to me a precious object.' They collected many gifts and brought them together with the Bishop to greet the Governor. The appearance and persuasion of Basil the Great was such that he was sedated, and did not take any of the gifts. They returned with joy, and Saint Basil gave them back their valuables. It was difficult to redistribute them, however, because many had similar offerings, such as rings, coins, jewelery, etc. Basil then thought up a wondrous plan: he ordered that on Saturday evening small cakes be made and within each cake an object be placed, and the next day they were to be distributed to the Christians. Behold the miracle! Within the small cake each found what they had offered! From that time, according to tradition, on every feast of Saint Basil we also make cakes and place objects within them."

Basil the Great was a great personality that has not been exhausted with the little presented above. But time is limited and I need to move on elsewhere.

2. The Figure of Santa Claus

While the Church in its worship, its theology, its iconography and its lives of saints honors to a large degree the great personality of Basil the Great, in folk tradition and especially in the Western European and American mentality they present Basil the Great as Santa Claus, with many variations.

When one reads texts and studies they will find that the figure of Basil the Great was altered in Europe and the New World.

Demetrios Loukatos, a professor of Folklore, in his book Christmas and the Holiday Season, writes that our Saint Basil "was purely a Saint of the New Year, something between the actual Bishop of Caesarea and a symbolic figure of Hellenism, that set off from the depths of Greek Asia and reached all latitudes the same day, from Pontus to the Ionian Islands to the mainland of Cyprus. He set off as a medieval hiker, immediately after Christmas, with his staff in hand, and he passed through various lands, always easygoing and chatting with those whom he met." The professor continues: "He did not hold a basket on his back nor a sack filled with presents. What he brought people was mostly symbolic: good luck and especially a priestly blessing. The only thing special was his magical staff which miraculously sprouted or enlivened branches and partridges, symbols of their respective gifts, which he could distribute to those he was in favor with." Further the professor explains: "Saint Basil brought nothing. Rather, it was as if they asked his blessing by distributing from their own intention gifts and money to people, that is, parents and relatives gave their children resolutions or with them gifts." Within our tradition, Santa Claus was "from Asia Minor, dark-haired, thin, jovial, with a black beard and arched eye-brows. Dressed as a Byzantine hiker, with a cap and sandals, in his hand he held a staff" (Spyros Demetrelis).

The homeland of the Santa Claus of the East was Asia Minor and he was literate, a native of Caesarea, "holding glue and paper, paper and pen" offering the gift of the "fixed and timeless joy of knowledge".

In the West there was another type of our Santa Claus. In Europe and especially in the Netherlands there was Sinter Klaas, who was "the patron saint of sailors, merchants and children, as he was venerated in the Netherlands, mainly from the 12th century onwards." In the 17th century Dutch Calvinists "emigrating to America took with them the image of St. Nicholas," and he became Saint Nick and Santa Claus. He would move about a few weeks later to visit the children on Christmas Eve. This version traveled to other countries." At around 1870 the sweet and generous figure traveled to Britain, where he merged with the Scandinavian in origin Father Christmas, and this gave birth to myths, legends, songs and outstanding habits."

The identification of Saint Nick with Santa Claus and Father Christmas that was brought to America by European immigrants was to change form there, acquiring the form of a "well-fed and purple attired saint, who because he could not live on the slopes of Aspen or Vermont for traditional reasons and commercial detachment, he remains somewhere in the North Pole."

Of course, it must be noted that this "form", which in Europe and America was named Saint Nick, Santa Claus and Father Christmas, from us he is called Saint Basil. Westerners do not call him Saint Basil, but Saint Nick, Santa Claus and Father Christmas. We have equated this "form" of the West with Saint Basil, after ousting our own Saint Basil. Professor Demetrios Loukatos says that this western form came to us "at the initiative of the bourgeoisie" and named him Santa Claus (αι-Βασίλης). For communication purposes we will call him Santa Claus as we proceed.

Today's Santa Claus is a creation of the Anglo-Saxon world and reflects its mentality. Santa Claus was born in the early 19th century by a bourgeois Protestant professor named Clement Clarke Moore "where he wrote for his children a story featuring Santa Claus, titled "The Night Before Christmas" and published on December 23rd of the year 1823 in the newspaper Sentinel. This story was decorated with illustrations by the Father of Humorous American Cartoons, Thomas Nast, who was of German descent and "borrowed elements from the German tradition of Christmas and the traditional German form of an itinerant trader."

There are studies whereby "Santa Claus was born during the American Civil War, when Nast worked at Harper's Weekly, the largest magazine of the time, and was tasked with allegorical images depicting the events of the war. One of these was 'Santa Claus in the Army', showing for the first time the Saint with the characteristics of an overweight man, rotund and rose-colored, capped by stars, who was handing out gifts in a northern army camp. The Santa of Nast did not evolve, but he remained in the red suit with white fur, a white beard and his playfulness. With this sketch, Christmas became a public holiday and Santa Claus made into a local deity - a good-hearted spirit that represented the prosperity and family life of the North, contrary to the myth of the rural traditions and deeply indigenous culture of the South.

Based on the success his work enjoyed, in 1862 Nast continued to produce drawings of Santa Claus every Christmas during the Civil War period. And the depiction was acceptable, because he gave the traditional strict ascetic and ossified image of the Father Christmas of Pelze-Nicol and Pere Noel another dimension that reflected abundance and prosperity.

Dickens had already altered the Christmas celebration of the bourgeoisie. But Santa Claus plays no role in the festive preparations of Dickens. The Christmas of Dickens was directed against the core of Victorian capitalism and emphasized the individual consciousness, society as a whole, and philanthropy. The Christmas of the Civil War of Nast - and the Santa Claus accompanying it - are in perfect agreement with the essence of the tradition of the North, which is the reconciliation of virtue with trade. Certainly the Saint of Nast distributes gifts to soldiers initially and then to children, a reward for anyone who has been good during the year. The most famous depiction of the Saint was released in 1866 - at the end of the first year of peace - and established the iconography of the character. We see him decorating a fir tree, making games, reading a book with tales, sewing clothes and finally exploring the world with his telescope 'to search for wise children'. In this way is depicted the busy side of his character and the standard of the adventurous Yankee.

Perhaps the most sympathetic element in the Santa Claus of Nast is his showing affection towards children. Children, who are presented as often as Santa Claus in Nast, looked nothing like the miserable street children of the Victorian era."

Obviously the Santa of Thomas Nast shows the dream of American society, based on prosperity, happiness, well-being, goodness and the longevity of man. Such a Santa Claus "is a personification of American materialism, abundance, joy and bliss." Certainly it should be noted that "the inventor of the fat and good elder is he who designed the logo of the American parties, the donkey for Democrats and the elephant for Republicans."

At the beginning of our century Santa somewhat changed form, and was just as we know him today. Coca-Cola contributed to this. "And if it was the cartoonist Thomas Nast who first imagined him, much like he is today, Coca-Cola gave rise to the form that has become so popular. In 1931, Coca-Cola decided to use Santa Claus in a winter advertising campaign and appointed another American artist, Haddon Sundblom, to design it. He chose the colors of Coca-Cola for the Saint, and ... there he is, with black boots, long bonnet, the red suit and white fur, such as we have come to know and love him."

The tradition according to which Santa passes through chimneys to give gifts to children comes from the poem by Clement Moore titled "A Visit of Saint Nicholas", who "borrowed the idea of the chimney, together with the idea of his sleigh pulled by eight reindeer from a Finnish fairy tale."

Meanwhile, these days in magazines and newspapers we read many strange things about Santa Claus. One of them is that Santa was "confrontational for political and economic interests", that he "separates rather than unites" people, and a "globalized Santa Claus" causes "the reflex reactions of local communities", from the view that many countries claim and dispute the origin of Santa Claus, from "Greenland to Australia and from Lapland to Austria." And of course he is associated with commerce, advertising and politics. The other is that this year we saw a magazine, but it is done elsewhere, that along with Santa Claus were Mrs. Santa Claus's, or women dressed as Santa Claus. Six Hollywood stars "wore a red outfit and stood in front of the lens as only they know." This also is a feature of our time.

Thus, the Saint Basil of Asia Minor who is literate and gives knowledge as a gift, converted to the Santa Claus giving "the ephemeral pleasure of consumption" and comes to us renamed as Santa Claus. He is not a person with existential questions and anxieties, with an ascetic dimension, but he is distinguished for his "pronounced belly, ruby red cheeks" and the image of "well being and optimism". It is known from various studies that the whole mentality of American society is distinguished from an alloy between the Puritan-Calvinist spirit combined with some aspects of the Enlightenment and Romanticism, as Schaeffer demonstrated among other things. Somehow the American Santa Claus is an expression of this spirit. This is the spirit that created various problems which the science of psychoanalysis wanted to take care of, because the repulsion of existential problems creates various illnesses, physical and psychological.

My beloved,

The course of man from the Basil the Great of Orthodox tradition to the Santa Claus of the Anglo-Saxon form shows the degradation of culture, the course from ontology to eudemonism to utilitarianism. The historian Daniélou has noticed that the ancient Greeks when examining the world inquired what is being and what are beings, that is, they did ontology. The Fathers of the Church dealt with the meaning of the world, but mainly responded to the question of who made the world and what is its purpose. Westerners, however, unlike the previous traditions, are asking how does the world serve us, hence the development of utilitarianism.

If the path from Basil the Great to Santa Claus shows the leveling of man, as well as his degradation, then the reverse path from the Santa Claus of consumerism and eudemonism to the Basil the Great of the Church shows human enhancement, elevation, the path towards reality, from a thing to a person. This is the meaning of the holidays. This is what we wish for ourselves and each other in the new year.

Source: Ekklesiastiki Paremvasi, "Ο Μέγας Βασίλειος και ο αι-Βασίλης", January 2003. Translated by John Sanidopoulos.