Sunday, December 5, 2010

St. Nicholas Day

Tonight (December 05), we’re celebrating Saint Nicholas Eve. The tradition of Saint Nicholas Day is a festival for children related to surviving legends of the saint, and particularly his reputation as a bringer of gifts.
De Goedheiligman
Saint Nicolas
Sinte Klaas
Kris Kringle
Father Christmas
Santa Claus

Whatever you want to call him, his day of celebration is December 6, or St. Nicholas Day.  It is a feast day for the saint who inspired the legend of Santa Claus The historical Saint Nicholas is remembered and revered among Catholic and Orthodox Christians. He is also honored by various Anglican and Lutheran churches. Saint Nicholas is the patron saint of sailors, merchants, archers, thieves, and of course children.

Although he was the patron saint of Russia, Nicholas of Myra was Greek. He was the only son of wealthy Christian parents and was very religious from an early age. His wealthy parents died in an epidemic, while Nicholas was still young, and he was raised by his uncle who was a bishop. Nicholas spent time at a monastery and led a devout life which is full of tales of his exploits.  Perhaps the most famous is about a poor man who had three daughters but could not afford a proper dowry for them. This meant that they would remain unmarried and probably end up as prostitutes. Hearing of the man's situation, Nicholas decided to help him but wanted to do so anonymously.  Version one of the story has Nicholas going to the man’s house at night and throwing three purses (one for each daughter) filled with gold coins through the window. Another version has him throwing one purse for three consecutive nights. A third rendition has him throw the purses over a period of three years, each time the night before one of the daughters comes "of age". Invariably, the third time the father hides, trying to discover the identity of their benefactor. In yet another version, the father confronts the saint, only to have Saint Nicholas say it is not him he should thank, but God alone. In one last story, Nicholas learns of the poor man's plan to discover his identity and drops the third bag down the chimney instead, but this variant says that the daughter had washed her stockings that evening and hung them over the embers to dry, and that the bag of gold fell into the stocking.

It’s easy to see how that story created the traditions that vary somewhat from country to country.  For some, like the Netherlands, Saint Nicholas’ Eve is the chief occasion for gift-giving. Children open presents that night. But most countries have some form of children putting out their shoes either in front of the fireplace, or outside the front door before they go to bed and then waking up to find presents, typically small trinkets and sweets around the shoes on the morning of the 6th. The story says Sinterklaas brings presents to every child that has behaved his or herself in the past year but in practice, just like with Santa Claus, all children receive gifts without distinction.

In recent years, Christmas (along with Santa Claus) has been pushed by shopkeepers as another gift-giving festival, with some success; although, especially for young children, Saint Nicholas' Eve is still much more important than Christmas. The rise of Father Christmas is often cited as an example of globalisation and Americanisation.

As a rather sad footnote, the metamorphosis of Saint Nicholas into the more commercially lucrative Santa Claus, which took several centuries in Europe and America, has recently been re-enacted in the saint's home town: the city of Demre. This modern Turkish town is built near the ruins of ancient Myra. As St. Nicholas is a very popular Orthodox saint, the city attracts many Russian tourists. A solemn bronze statue of the Saint by the Russian sculptor Gregory Pototsky, donated by the Russian government in 2000, was given a prominent place on the square in front of the medieval church of St. Nicholas. In 2005, the city’s mayor had the statue replaced by a red-suited plastic Santa Claus statue, because he wanted the central statue to be more recognizable to visitors from all over the world. Protests from the Russian government against this action were successful only to the extent that the Russian statue was returned, without its original high pedestal, to a corner near the church.

While feasts of Saint Nicholas are not observed nationally, cities with strong German influences like Milwaukee, and St. Louis celebrate St. Nick's Day on a scale similar to the German.  Gifts often include chocolate gold coins to represent the gold St. Nick gave to the poor and small trinkets.  In these areas the tradition of St. Nick's Day is firmly established with parents often continuing to observe the day with their adult children.

I, for one, will be celebrating in whatever small manner, the life and memories of someone with true compassion and love of children.

Happy St. Nicholas Day to you.

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