Each December the Princeton University Chapel Choir performs a free holiday concert in the impressive university cathedral (actually, it is a chapel, but given its size I’ll stick with cathedral). This year’s concert was Benjamin Britten’s “Saint Nicholas.” The association of Saint Nicholas with Christmas, not really a major holiday until relatively recent times, was an aspect that developed long after his death in the fourth century. The date of his death, December 6, and his association with the giving of gifts, made him an obvious model for Santa Claus (who still bears his name). Most of the gifts I’ve received from bishops involved losing a livelihood and personal dignity, so it is little wonder that Nicholas is venerated. Few bishops of his generosity exist today.
The stories of Nicholas of Myra, however, are full of mythical accounts that bear less resemblance to history than to legends of old. Eric Crozer’s lyric for Britten’s piece invokes several of these miraculous tales. Saint Nick, it seems, stilled a storm at sea, multiplied food and walked on water like Jesus. The lyric also tells the legend of how he raised three pickled boys from the dead, although I have to admit I couldn’t get my mind off zombies after that. This story seems to owe something to the myth of Tantalus, who, like Nicholas, was from Anatolia. In real life we do know that at the Council of Nicaea Nicholas punched Bishop Arius in the ear for his heresy. Theological discussions are like that sometimes. And I wonder if that might not be the origin of another curiosity of which a friend recently reminded me—Saint Nicholas doesn’t travel alone.
Our modern version of Santa Claus takes its roots mostly from germanic traditions. In that culture the saint is accompanied by a more sinister character who doles out punishment to the naughty. He is known by many names: Krampus, Ruprecht, Schmutzli, Zwarte Piet, or simply the Devil. Instead of using their diabolical fists, they generally carry rods to smack the not-so-nice, kind of the Republican side to the liberal Santa. This dark figure does not appear in Britten’s “Saint Nicholas” where a (mostly) kinder, gentler saint appears. A saint who raised briny boys from the beef barrel also belted another theologian upside the head. Life, even for saints, is full of contradictions.
Posted in Classical Mythology, Holidays, Popular Culture, Posts, Religious Origins
Tagged Benjamin Britten, Chapel Choir, Christmas, Council of Nicaea, Devil, Eric Crozer, Nicholas of Myra, Princeton University, Saint Nicholas, Saint Nicholas Day, Santa Claus, Tantalus
A news story last week related how a traditional park area in Santa Monica, California had been “taken over” by atheists who wanted equal time with traditional Christmas displays. The park, which houses 21 display areas generally populated by nativity scenes of one sort or another, had so many requests for space this year that a lottery was instituted—a lottery that the atheist groups won. Claiming 18 of the spaces, the atheists groups have vastly reduced the visibility of traditional Bethlehem mythology. Does anybody else feel a culture war coming on?
The whole “Keep Christ in Christmas” campaign that has been fermenting over the past decade or so has made many Christians paranoid. Society has forgotten, they claim, whose birthday we’re celebrating. A plain view of the facts, however, calls this assertion into question. No one bothered to record the date of Jesus’ birth. The stories about it, in the Gospels of Matthew and Luke, were written after a lifetime of reflection by people who were not eyewitnesses to any of the events. Historians of the era mention no celestial anomalies and there are no records of crazy old Herod killing babies among his own people. (His domestic affairs, however, may be quite another story.) What is absolutely clear is that the stories have grown with the telling. Many a child can tell you the names of the three wise men. Luke doesn’t even place them at the first Christmas, does not name them, and does not say there were three. No records of Zoroastrian migrations to Israel verify this story either.
The true loss is the loss of story. We live in a society that abuses the words “just” and “only.” That’s just a myth. That’s only a story. Ancient people—from the time of Jesus—appreciated the truths a story conveys. Consider the parables of Jesus. They cite not sources neither do they seek verification. They are only stories. They are also cited as the basis of many church teachings. Even atheists can be taught to appreciate the value of stories. Who could object to a myth advocating peace, harmony, and goodwill? Even if it’s just a myth.
Santa Claus might come to Santa Monica’s rescue. Yes, diehard fans of historical veracity will say there was a saint called Nicholas. We all agree that he didn’t wear red velvet trimmed in white and that he didn’t possess magical, northern latitude cervid stock. Even before the days of forced air heat he didn’t slither down every chimney in the world in one night. Few would dispute, however, the value of giving gifts of good will. Just ask any member of the Salvation Army who appear at this season every year. Instead of arguing about whom to exclude, why don’t we invite everyone to our celebration? Jesus, angels, Santa, Jack Frost, Heat Miser, and Christopher Hitchens—what a party this could turn out to be!
Is there no room in the manger?
Posted in Bible, Current Events, Holidays, Popular Culture, Posts, Religious Origins
Tagged atheism, Bethlehem, California, Christmas, Herod, Keep Christ in Christmas, Saint Nicholas, Salvation Army, Santa Claus, Santa Monica, wise men, Zoroastrianism