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Santa Claus

1 December 2007

As St Nicholas Day approaches, newspapers begin publishing features about Santa Claus, which are usually shallow, poorly researched, and inaccurate. If any journalists have been given the task by their editor this year, they could do worse than look at this article:

Santa Claus, also known as Saint Nicholas, Father Christmas, Kris Kringle, or simply “Santa” is a mythological, legendary, and historical character associated with bringing gifts on Christmas Eve or Christmas Day.

One of the strangest, however, was posted on the soc.religion.paganism newsgroup under the heading “December holidays and days of note”:

Dec. 6 Saint Nicholas’s Day. (Formerly Catholic, now Gnostic & Discordian) For the former Bishop of Myra. who, if I am not mistaken, was dropped from the ranks of Roman Catholic saints In the early 60’s due to it being pointed out that he was really a Gnostic. Ho Ho Ho!

I think the author of that particular entry was definitely mistaken.

As far as I am aware the Roman Catholics demoted St Nicholas from a general to a local observance. Anglicans removed him from their calendar, if I recall correctly, on the grounds that much of the material in the hagiographies was legendary. And there are indeed many pious legends about him, such as that in infancy he abstained from his mother’s breast on Wednesdays and Fridays in order to keep the fasts of the Church.

St Nicholas of MyraHe remains, however, a very popular saint among Orthodox Christians, and he was an Orthodox bishop. Like other saints about whom it is difficult to sift historical and biographical fact from legend, such as St George, St Katherine, St Barbara (Varvara) and others he has been very popular. Some of this popularity can be seen in the film My big fat Greek wedding, where Toula introduces her non-Greek and non-Orthodox boyfriend to her relatives – this is Nick, and George and Costa, and Nick, Nick, Costa and George. With St George, St Nicholas of Myra has been one of the most popular Christians saints, loved in many parts of the world. Countless churches in many countries have been dedicated in his honour in the West as well as in the East.

If I were given to conspiracy theories, I might be tempted to suspect a Western conspiracy against Orthodox Christians — that St Nicholas and St George have been demoted in the West, and St Constantine has been turned into a villain, and made responsible for everything bad that has happened in the history of the church!

When his parents died St Nicholas regarded his inheritance from them as something held in trust. He was merely the steward of goods that belonged to the poor, and took care to keep his good deeds secret. He was renowned for his almsgiving. It is this practice that has associated him with the giving of anonymous gifts.

Western culture has rather debased his memory, however, where the spirit of St Nicholas has been turned upside down, with advertisements and popular magazine features making suggestions for gifts for “the man who has everything.”

To give in the spirit of St Nicholas, however, is not to give to the man who has everything, but to the man who has nothing.

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