Our Community - Saint Nicholas of Myra

The Island Newspaper, Ambergris Caye, Belize            Vol. 14, No. 45            December 23, 2004

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Around the end of November and early December, Ambergris Caye, as well as the rest of the world begins to glow with colorful blinking lights in anticipation of the Christmas Holidays. Although it is a time for shopping, cooking, and working extra long hours, many celebrate the birth of Jesus Christ and give time and gifts to those in need.

     This week, The San Pedro Sun takes you back – back in time to present to you the greatest bringer of gifts – Santa Claus – and from whom the whole tradition is believed to have begun, Saint Nicholas of Myra.

     Nicholas was born in the year 270 during the third century in Myra, a village in what is now Turkey. He was born an only child of wealthy parents who raised him to be a devout Christian. However, his parents died in an epidemic while Nicholas was still young.

     Nicholas was sent to live in a monastery and, at the age of 17, became one of the youngest priests ever. Obeying Jesus' words to "sell what you own and give the money to the poor," Nicholas used his whole inheritance to assist the needy, the sick, and the suffering; he gave his wealth away in the form of gifts to those in need, especially children.

     While still a young man, Nicholas overheard the plight of a poor family. The family had fallen on hard times and the father could not afford the dowries necessary for his three daughters to marry. For this reason, he had decided to sell one of his daughters into slavery to get the dowries for the other two. Once Nicholas heard of this, he went to their home late one night and anonymously dropped three bags of gold down the chimney. The daughters' stockings were hanging by the fire to dry and the bags landed in one of the sisters' stocking – hence the stockings hung with care on the fireplace and the gifts placed inside – which they later used as their dowries.

     Nicholas dedicated his life to serving God and in the early part of the fourth century was made Bishop of Myra while still a young man – hence the bishop's hat or miter, long flowing gown, white beard and red cape. Bishop Nicholas became known throughout the land for his generosity to those in need, his love for children, and his concern for sailors and ships.

     Nicholas traveled constantly and through his travels, would leave gifts to the good little children, in the form of candies, cookies, apples, and nuts. In some places, the children put their shoes on the window sill at night if they new Nicholas was in town. Upon waking up in the morning, they would find them filled with treats the next morning. In convent boarding schools, the young women students would leave their stockings at the door of their respective rooms, with notes recommending themselves to the generosity of Nicholas – hence the letters to Santa Claus. The next morning the abbesses would summon their charges and show them their stockings filled – supposedly by Nicholas – with sweetmeats. Nicholas died on December 6th in the year 342, in the middle of the fourth century. The date of his death, December 6th, was commemorated with an annual feast, which gradually came to mark the beginning of the medieval Christmas season. On St. Nicholas' Eve, youngsters would set out food for the saint, straw for his horses and schnapps for his attendant. The next morning, obedient children awoke to find their gifts replaced with sweets and toys, and found their offering untouched. After his death, he was elevated to sainthood.

     In the sixteenth century, after the Protestant Reformation, the feasting and veneration of Catholic saints were banned. But people had become accustomed to the annual visit from their gift-giving saint and did not want to forget the purpose of the holiday. In some countries, the festivities of St. Nicholas' Day were merged with Christmas celebrations, and although the gift-bearer took on new, non-religious forms, he still reflected the saint's generous spirit.

     In Germany, he appeared as Weihnachtsmann, in England as Father Christmas, and in France, as Pèrè Noël, who left small gifts in the children's shoes.

     In the areas where St. Nicholas was still portrayed as the gift-bearer, a host of other characters developed to be his assistants. Two of his most well known helpers were Knecht Ruprecht (meaning Servant Rupert) and the Belsnickle. Depending on the local tradition, they were either attendants to St. Nicholas or gift-bears themselves, but in all cases, both were fearsome characters, brandishing rods and switches. It was not only their duty to reward good children, but also to reprimand children who were naughty and could not recite their prayers.

     Servant Rupert was also known by other names, such as Black Peter (so called because he delivered the presents down the chimney for St. Nicholas and became blackened with soot).

     In some places, the images, of Servant Rupert and St. Nicholas merged to form Ru Klaus (meaning Rough Nicholas - so named because of his rugged appearance), Aschen Klaus (meaning Ash Nicholas - because he carried a sack of ashes, as well as a bundle of switches), and Pelznickle (meaning Furry Nicholas – referring to his fur clad appearance).

     Not all of St. Nicholas' companions were frightening. In fact, the Christkindl (meaning Christ Child) was thought to accompany him in many countries. Often portrayed by a fair-haired young girl, this angelic figure was sometimes the gift-bearer too.

     In the seventeenth century, immigrants to the New World brought along their various beliefs when they crossed the Atlantic. The Scandinavians introduced gift-giving elves, the Germans brought not only their Belsnickle and Chistkindle but also their decorated trees and the Irish contributed the ancient Gaelic custom of placing a lighted candle in the window.

     In the 1600's, the Dutch presented Sinterklaas (meaning St. Nicholas) to the colonies. In their excitement, many English-speaking children uttered the name so quickly that Sinterklaas sounded like Santy Claus. After years of mispronunciation, the name evolved into Santa Claus.

     In 1808, American author Washington Irving created a new version of old St. Nick. This one rode over the treetops in a horse drawn wagon "dropping gifts down the chimneys of his favorites." Irving described Santa as a jolly Dutchman who smoked a long stemmed clay pipe and wore baggy breeches and a broad brimmed hat. Also, the familiar phrase, "...laying his finger beside his nose..." first appeared in Irving's story.

     In 1822, that phrase was used again in the now-classic poem by Dr. Clement Clarke Moore, A Visit from St. Nicholas, more commonly know as The Night Before Christmas. His verse gave an Arctic flavor to Santa's image when he substituted eight tiny reindeer and a sleigh for Irving's horse and wagon. It is Moore's description of Santa that we most often think of today, "He had a broad face, and a little round belly, that shook, when he laughed, like a bowl full of jelly." Santa's physical appearance and the color of his suit were open to individual interpretation.

     In 1863, Thomas Nast, a German immigrant, was asked to illustrate Moore's charming verse for a book of children's poems. Nast drew a softer, kinder Santa who was still old but appeared less stern than the ecclesiastical St. Nicholas. He dressed his elfin figure in red and endowed him with human characteristics. Most important of all, Nast gave Santa a home at the North Pole. For the following twenty-three years, his annual drawings in Harpers Weekly magazine allowed Americans to peek into the magical world of Santa Claus and set the stage for the shaping of today's merry gentleman.

     Beginning in 1931, Artist Haddon Sundblom added the final touches to Santa's modern image. His billboard and other advertisements for Coca Cola featured a portly, grandfatherly Santa with human proportions and a ruddy complexion. Sunblom's high-spirited, twinkle-eyed Santa firmly fixed the gift-giver's image in the public mind.

     St. Nicholas' evolution into today's happy, larger-than-life Santa Claus is a wonderful example of the blending of countless beliefs and practices from around the world. This benevolent figure encompasses all the goodness and innocence of childhood. And, because goodness is his very essence, present in every kindness we do, Santa will always be remembered in "Our Community."

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