Saint Nicholas, Bishop of Myra

On December 6th, we marked the feast of Saint Nicholas, a fourth century bishop of the Greek city Myra (in present-day Turkey).

Chiefly, he is remembered for his generosity and secret gift-giving. The son of a wealthy family, Nicholas gave away much of his inheritance to the poor. According to one tradition, the bishop heard a poor man praying; the man had no money to provide dowries for his three daughters and worried that, unmarried, the young women would be left impoverished. Over the next three nights, Bishop Nicholas is said to have thrown bags of money through the window to provide for the family.

Saint Nicholas, vested as an Orthodox bishop, 19th. cent. Russian icon

Saint Nicholas is also remembered for his commitment to Christian orthodoxy; he was present at the Council of Nicaea where he defended the divinity of Christ from the Arian heretics. Arius claimed that Christ is merely a creature of God rather than eternally begotten, and thus not consubstantial with the Father. Nicholas and the orthodox bishops put forward the ecumenical Creed which states our faith in Jesus Christ, the only Son of God, “begotten, not-made” who is “of one being with the Father.” (One legend tells that Nicholas and Arius even got into a physical altercation — a story that provides endless joy for theology students during their December exams.)

For younger children, especially from German and Dutch families, Saint Nicholas is known as a gift-giver who comes over night between December 5th and 6th to leave candy (usually chocolate coins) and oranges in their shoes. In these countries, Nicholas is often accompanied by various companions who bring punishment for ill-behaved children.

Of all Saint Nick’s companions, my personal favorite is based in Bavarian folklore: a devilish creature named Krampus, sort of the Anti-Santa, who comes on the night of December 5th (Krampusnacht) and delivers punishments. Krampus varies in appearance from an impish faun to a frighteningly demonic creature, and his punishments range in severity based on local custom. Much like the modern-day Santa, Krampus was featured on 19th century greeting cards (Krampuskarten).

“Greetings from Krampus”

It’s worth noting that some of these companions, such as Krampus, are frightening. Others, such as “Black Peter,” have their origins in offensive racial stereotypes best left behind. Still others, such as Knecht Ruprecht, a grumpy farmhand, are more benign and may be the source of the elves in American stories.)

In the United States, we know Saint Nicholas as Santa Claus. The American English name comes from the Dutch Sinterklaas. In the US, we tend to associate Santa Claus with “the night before Christmas,” the result of mixing various cultural traditions. In German Protestant homes, the focus was on the Christkindl, an angelic figure representing the newborn Jesus, who brings presents at Christmas (also the source of Santa’s alternate name, Kris Kringle).

As the traditions merged in the United States, they took concrete form in the poem “A Visit from Saint Nicholas” (better known as “‘Twas the Night Before Christmas”).

Today, we give thanks not for a mythic gift giver and his reindeer but instead for the exemplary life of a bishop who upheld and lived the Christian faith in thought, word, and deed.

Adapted from a series of Facebook posts.

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