Nicholas of Myra

It may be a little early to start thinking about Christmas, but archaeologists don’t often worry about timing. A piece in the Washington Post announced something of potential interests to hagiographers everywhere—Saint Nicholas may still actually be in his tomb. According to the article by Cleve R. Wootson Jr., bandits broke in and stole the relics of the saint centuries ago. In fact, they took them to Bari where a thriving cult grew up around the giving bishop. It seems, however, that they got the wrong tomb. If the analysis is correct, Nicholas of Myra is right where they put him sixteen centuries ago.

Photo credit: Bjoertvedt, via Wikimedia Commons

None of this, however, impacts Christmas as we know it. The relationship between the historical Saint Nicholas and Santa Claus is a wide-ranging and fascinating one. Stories of generosity surrounded Nicholas during and after his earthly life. It took centuries of evolution to get from that to what we now accept as standard Christmas mythology. In the early—pre-rampant capitalist—United States Christmas wasn’t much observed. It was even illegal in some places. Too Popish to appeal to the dissenter sensibilities that made up the colonial majority, the holiday season simply did not exist. It was, in the words of C. S. Lewis, “winter without Christmas.” For those of us who grew up with warm memories of presents, special foods, and days off the obligations of school, such an existence is difficult to imagine.

The feast of Saint Nicholas falls on December 6. Because of its proximity to the revisionist birthday of Jesus on December 25, the gifts of the Magi and the storied presents of Nicholas to families in need eventually merged. The holy days eventually became spending days and the whole jumble of Yule and other solstice celebrations got mixed into a wonderfully tolerant holiday. And all this time we thought Saint Nicholas was missing. He was missing in his own grave.

Miracles are attributed to the relics of saints. I suspect they work even if the wrong bones are plundered. Belief is like that. Historically, little is actually known of Nicholas of Myra. Little is known of Jesus of Nazareth, for that matter. The holiday that grew up in the wake of those willing to give, and to give to those who were undeserving, is a lesson that seems to have been interred with their bones. “So let it be with Santa,” you can almost hear Mark Antony say, standing before Congress, itching to slash any safety nets so one-percenters can have the happiest holiday season ever. Yes, Saint Nicholas is well and truly dead.

Jolly Saint Nicholas


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.

‘Tis the Season

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?

Peace on Earth

One of the most ironic of Christmas messages is “peace on earth.” The irony comes in the means of declaring that peace. Apparently first-century angels were declaring peace to the entire world, according to Luke. The peace that we see proffered, however, often extends only to those like us. What is the harm in extending Christmas joy to all? Must one be a Christian of a particular stripe before the joy of giving can be bestowed? Over the last several years various Christian groups have sought to reclaim ownership of the holiday they borrowed from the pagan Romans, Celts, and Anglo-Saxons. Make it exclusively ours. Peace to us, and let others find their own way home.

In a season of charitable giving, understanding seems to have fallen off the list of Saint Nicholas. In his guise as Santa Claus he makes the rounds of the entire world, according to the mythology that children are told. Do we ever really picture Santa delivering gifts to those who live in Iran, North Korea, or Afghanistan? Does peace on earth apply to them? The thing about peace is, unless everybody has it nobody has it.

Can we learn to share Christmas? Those who fret over Xmas forget that first-century Christians abbreviated Christ with an X (chi in Greek), just as they represented him by a highly stylized fish. Today an empty fish on your bumper declares what an X cannot, apparently. The message is that Christmas belongs to us, not secular pretenders who just want an excuse to make their kids happy. For most of the history of Christianity, Christmas had been a low-key event, barely noticed by most of the faithful. When the possibility of material gain was added in, however, the holiday became especially holy. Should we share the doctrine but not the gain, or should we make Christmas a gift to all the world – a season when all might reasonably hope for peace?