Dec 6, 2012

St. Nicholas, Nikolaus, Sinterklaas and Santa Claus

December 6 marks the death of Nicholas of Myra (now the Anatolia region of modern Turkey) who died on this day in 346. He was a Greek Christian Bishop known for miracles and giving gifts secretly, and is now the patron saint of children, sailors, harbors, merchants and students. He is the saint behind a number of traditions associated with Christmas and gift-giving, and is also known for his oozing relics in Bari.

Miracles back in the day

In his most famous exploit, St. Nicholas aided a poor man who had three daughters but could not afford a proper dowry for them. According to the legend, Nicholas heard of the man's plight and threw three purses (one for each daughter) filled with gold coins through the window of the man's house by night. In some versions, he throws one bag per night or one bag every few years as the girls come of age. Another twist has him dropping the bag down the chimney – indeed, in one variant, the bag of gold falls into a stocking one of the daughters had hung to dry over the embers.

In another miracle, Saint Nicholas resurrected three boys murdered by a malicious butcher who intended to cure and sell them as ham.

Dripping relics

In 1087, half of the relics of St. Nicholas were translated from Myra to Bari in southeastern Italy (the rest ended up in Venice). For this reason, St. Nicholas is also known as Nicholas of Bari. 

The relics and certain icons of the saint are famous for exuding a clear watery liquid called myrrh (not to be confused with proper myrrh) which is said to smell like rose water and to possess miraculous powers. This liquid has been collected  and ostensibly sold  for centuries and can still be obtained from the shop at the Basilica di San Nicola. A search on eBay yielded nothing, alas.

Because of its "miraculous" relics, the Basilica di San Nicola has traditionally been a site of Christian pilgrimage and continues to be to this day. Indeed, modern people travel to Bari to witness the myrhh-streaming icon of St. Nicholas, as evident in the account given by pilgrims from St. Vladimir's Russian Orthodox Church in Edmonton, Alberta on a trip to Bari in 2012: 

"The first part of our first day’s visit was spent talking with Father Elias who told us accounts of miracles and spiritual blessings given by the icon… He then took the icon out of its cloth covering and wooden kivot and held it up. We could see more plainly the myrrh lightly flowing from the icon. The icon’s surface was “shiny wet” and the cotton batting placed below it was already half-soaked with myrrh."

Saint in a Santa suit

In Roman Catholic iconography, Saint Nicholas is depicted as a bishop wearing a red bishop's cloak and a red mitre and holding a bishop's crozier. In the Eastern Orthodox Church he looks like an Orthodox bishop, wearing the omophorion, holding a Gospel book and sometimes wearing a mitre. In fact, he's easy to spot because he looks like a fitter version of the modern Santa Claus. 
The episode with the three dowries is commemorated by showing him holding in his hand either three purses, three coins or three balls of gold. Depending on whether he is depicted as patron saint of children or sailors, his images are completed by a background showing ships, children or three figures climbing out of a wooden barrel (recalling three slaughtered children he resurrected in one miracle).

The modern St. Nicholas is bearded, dresses like a bishop in red and white and usually carries a sack over his back.  

A rather merry group, wouldn't you say?

St. Nicholas traditions today

On December 6, children in Germany, Austria, Switzerland and Holland celebrate Nikolaus  or Sinterklaas in Holland  – by leaving one shoe outside for St. Nicholas to fill with treats like coins, chocolate, oranges and toys. Earlier, naughty children would receive a switch, ostensibly for spankings, and St. Nicholas was known to have a sinister-looking alter-ego named Knecht Ruprecht who would accompany a person disguised as St.Nicholas to reprimand the naughty child.  

In these countries, St. Nicholas does not return at Christmas: instead it is the Weihnachtsmann or Father Christmas, who comes to German homes – often in person – on the afternoon of Christmas Eve. 

The modern Santa Claus who brings presents for children on Christmas Day is derived in part from the Dutch Sinterklaas and retains many of the attributes of the original St. Nicholas. 

No comments:

Post a Comment