Monday, December 6, 2010

St. Nicholas of Myra (d. c. 342)

Little is factually known about St. Nicholas, who is one of the patron saints of Russia, other than that he was a 4th century bishop, at Myra, in what is now southern Turkey, and was reputed to be a worker of wonders. A 9th century hagiographer expanded on the latter a collection of what could almost be called wonderful hero or adventure stories about St. Nicholas. Many of them recount his love and care for children, his feeding of the hungry, his healing the sick and caring for the oppressed. The photo [shown on the right] depicts Nicholas rescuing three boys in a barrel from possible cannibalism, something reprehensible to our modern ears, but an occasional occurence factually verifiable at that time of great famine in Asia Minor. Another story tells of how he saved three girls from a life of prostitution by providing them, at the last minute, with dowries. Thus developed a tradition of bringing gifts to children on St. Nicholas' feastday, a tradition appropriated in later Christmas celebrations.

Fr. John Julian, OJN, in his Stars In A Dark World, makes this interesting observation about the corruption of the St. Nicholas tradition in the United States: "In early New York, 'Saint Nicholas' was recognized by the Dutch Protestant settlers as 'Sint Klaes', and, apparently preferring paganism to popishness, they mixed the saint’s story with the Scandinavian legends of Thor who, as the god of fire, dressed all in red, rode across the sky in a chariot drawn by two goats named Gnasher and Cracker, entered homes through chimneys and hearths, and was worshipped and honored by the burning of a Yule Log. This less than-creditable hybridization produced, of course, the totally secular, uniquely American, and notably un-saintly 'Santa Claus', the greatest symbol of contemporary consumerism. And, sad to say, this perversion of sanctity was advanced considerably by the word of an Episcopal priest and seminary Dean, The Rev. Clement C. Moore, who wrote what became the classic pagan Yuletide poem, 'The Night Before Christmas'." Only in America!

Now that our rampant and insane practices of acquiring and consuming more and more trifling things on a mega-scale has begun to come back and haunt us in the serious recession we're currently experiencing, perhaps this would be a good day for us pause and resolve to remember and begin to emulate the spirit of a man who devoted himself to far nobler human and spiritual ideals: providing for the welfare and future of children, the feeding of the unemployed and the poor, and the selfless easing of others' sufferings and burdens.

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