6 December is the feast of Bishop St Nicholas of Myra. Yeah, jolly old St Nick, except Myra is not at the North Pole, but was a town in Lycia which was in what is now the southwestern coast of Turkey.
Huh? Howdya get from Turkey to the North Pole? Howdya get from a pastor to a guy flying around in the sky with presents? Hey, that's just for openers, there's way more! Settle back, this is gonna be fun.
From pastor to a guy in the sky.
The guy in the sky with presents has nothing to do with Nicholas of Myra. That is an adaptation from old Germanic folklore, the Wild Hunt (Wilde Jagd), in which during Yule, a feast around the Winter Solstice, the gods rode, distributing good and/or bad, in most versions led by Odin (Woden, Wotan) on his eight-legged horse, Sleipnir. So there you go, long-bearded guy, leading a bunch of guys, in the sky, from the North, on flying animals.
Gotta tell ya, my favourite version has the leader of the Wild Hunt being a Brythonic king, Herla, who spends about three centuries on the "other side" and comes back to find all these Angles and Saxons around and wonders what's up with that. This is from Gaulterius Mappus (English: Walter Map) in C12, in his work De nugis curialium, distinctio prima (On the Trifles of the Courtiers, part one). He was an English courtier himself, went to the University of Paris, and heard a lot of "trifles" in a lot of courts. Hey, the Romans left so the Brythons hadda do something to keep order so they invited us! Us Angles anyway, the Saxons can speak for themselves.
This Germanic folklore is also the origin of characters associated with Santa Claus. In North America it's generally nice elves, but in Germanic versions the bad stuff got individuated into Krampus, a demon-like guy who shows up the night before 6 December (Krampusnacht) to jack around with (in varying degrees depending on which version) bad kids, or more recently starting in 1850 in Holland, Zwarte Piet, Black Pete, said to be a Moor (remember, Spain ruled the Netherlands in the past), who began more Krampus-like but is now an amusing assistant and helper.
OK "everybody knows" that "Santa Claus" has his origins in the stories about St Nicholas. For example the nickname "St Nick", or "Santa Klaus". Nicknames in some languages come from the last rather than the first part of a given name, so in German Nikolaus becomes Klaus rather than as in English Nicholas becomes Nick. What about the "santa"? That comes from the Latin sanctus, as a noun meaning a saint, or in German, Sankt. So, we have an English version of a German nickname for St Nicholas, Sankt Klaus, morphing through a West Germanic (read: Dutch) variant Sinterklaas into "Santa Claus" in English.
Hey, nickname, Nick, the whole idea comes from the particular nickname Nick maybe, right? Wrong. A logical guess, but logic though always consistent with itself is not always consistent with reality. "Nickname" comes from ekename, meaning "another name", which became nekename in Middle English, which is "nickname" now.
There, you're already set for some seasonal fun with friends! Bring this up, and when you do, don't call "St Nick" a nickname, call it a hypocorism, or hypocoristic. Huh? OK OK, there's three kinds of nicknames, hypocorisms, diminutives and monikers. The first reflects a bond between the parties, the second reflects smallness as a sign of either affection or contempt, the third are nicknames that become names in themselves, for example someone whose given name is Frank, not as a nickname for Francis as it originally was. But be careful how you have this kind of fun. Done in a wrong way, you may be taken for a uselessly overeducated pompous crashing bore (a cruder two-syllable word beginning with "a" may also be used) and we wouldn't want that.
Nicholas of Myra.
Anyway, also "everybody knows" that he went around giving anonymous gifts to kids, either tossing them over the transom (that's a window over a door, used for ventilation, hardly ever see them now) into their shoes left by the door, or tossing them down the chimney (don't see many of them now either) into the stockings hung by the fireplace to dry, from which we get the tradition of putting shoes out or hanging stockings to get gifts from a guy who goes around.
But, what was his point in doing that, so there'd be kids like you see in the commercials, waking up in nice homes and being all happy with getting new stuff for Christmas?
Hell no. So who is this guy? OK, Nicholas was born 15 March 270 in Patara, Diocese of Asia. Huh? Isn't a diocese a church thing? No it isn't; that came later and is still around. Patara was a town on the southwestern coast of what is now Turkey. It was named from its legendary founder Patarus, a son of Apollo, and was a major seaport and centre of Apollo worship complete with an oracle of Apollo almost as important as the one at Delphi. It's mentioned in Acts 21:1-3 as a port on the travels of Sts Paul and Luke. "Diocese" is the name of administrative units of the Roman Empire created by Emperor Diocletian -- he liked the word because it sounds like his name -- and the Diocese of Asia, Dioecesis Asiana in Latin, lasted from 314 to 535 when Emperor Justinian (boy has that guy got a story but it's covered elsewhere on this blog) abolished it. The area was Helenistic (read: Greek) in language and culture.
St Nicholas came from a wealthy family, lived in nearby Myra, and as a pastor gave pretty much all his inheritance away to help poor children and families. And particularly, in those days, poor girls without a dowry likely would not end up wives and mothers in nice households, and likely would end up as prostitutes. So the gifts had a real serious practical edge to them, to help turn lives around by giving them a start their circumstances or parents couldn't.
So what's a dowry? Well, ever heard of paraphernalia? Probably brings to mind assorted odds and ends, or gear related to something else, or, (yeah I know, too many ors) if you have a certain background, bongs and pipes and roach clips and stuff, but the word originally refers to part of a dowry. Great - what's a dowry? If you've been fed the revisionist "politically correct" crap passed off as education these days, it may call to mind money and/or property that a wife brought along with herself to be the property of her new husband. Actually, it was quite the opposite.
Dowry, the word, derives through older forms of English and French from the Latin word dos and its older Greek cognate dosis, gift, and in Greek this specific type of gift or dosis was called pherna. Dowries are a universal custom in human history dating back to earliest records anywhere. While specifics vary from time and place to time and place, it is a gift (donatio) of inheritance given between the living (inter vivos) as opposed to because of the death (mortis causa) of the donor. In this case, from the bride's family to both the groom and/or his family and to the bride herself. Some of it is to help with the establishment of the new family unit, so that all of the financial burdens of marriage (onera matrimonii) don't fall all on the husband and/or his family, and yes, that could be a source of misuse. But the rest of it remained the wife's only, and was to insure that she would not be left financially helpless should the new husband and family treat her poorly or victimise her. Precisely the opposite of the modern misconception.
That part of the dowry, dos in Latin and pherna in Greek, that was hers and not either the husband's or in-common property is called the parapherna, which means "beyond the pherna (dowry gift)" in Greek, which Latin retained, with the plural paraphernalia. So that's what a dowry is and how it functions, and what paraphernalia is. Yeah, I suppose if she had some good pipes they stay hers.
Anyway, the same guy who did this -- whaddya wanna call it, outreach, winning souls, meeting needs -- also was at the Council of Nicaea at a time when it seemed the whole church was heading into the heresy of Arianism. That was the belief that Jesus as Son of God was neither equal to God the Father nor co-eternal with Him, as the doctrine of the Trinity maintains. And what did the council do, say wow look at how those Arians connect with people and attract them, maybe we should quit worrying about all these doctrinal barriers we put up and preach and worship more like they do but with our content, as some "Lutherans" do now?
Hell no, again. St Nick was among the most vocal standing for the catholic faith (not to be confused with the Catholic Faith) against Arianism and Arius (the "bishop" who was its main proponent and from whom it is named) himself, which led to the formulation of the Nicene Creed we confess at mass (not to be confused with Mass). So next time someone says we gotta get rid of all this hang up on doctrine and liturgy and get with the mission field and outreach, take a bloody clue from St Nick.
Or from Wilhelm Löhe, whose half-fast Lutheran church body found him just not quite with it and stuck him in a little town in Bavaria, from which he arranged spiritual and temporal missionaries all over the world and worked mightily for authentic Lutheran liturgy and doctrine, whose good effects are bearing fruit to this day.
Funny thing is, there's about as much myth and stories about St Nicholas himself as there is about Santa Claus, or Father Christmas, as he is more commonly called in Mother England.
On the Arius thing, some say he slapped Arius and was thrown in jail for it, whereupon Jesus and Mary appeared to him, loosened his chains, gave him a copy of the Gospels and a bishop's stole (omophorion) respectively, and when the Emperor (Constantine, no less) heard of it released him and reinstated him, but others say this was a vision to Constantine directly, and some say to all the "bishops" at the Council. Nicholas was at the council, he's 151st on the list of those attending, and he did strenuously champion the catholic faith, but, the slapping Arius thing has no basis other than legend. Not well attested, as they say. So no, it's not "Slap a Heretic Day".
On the gifts thing, some versions of the story say it was at one time for a poor man with three daughters, some say it was three times as each daughter grew up, some say it was through an opened window, and some say the third time the dad was waiting to see who was doing this so Nick tossed it down the chimney and it fell in the girl's stockings hung by the fire to dry, but other versions say the dad found out who it was only to be told by him to be grateful to God, not him personally.
After his death.
Not to mention that after his death even the real St Nick got caught up in commercialism. He was buried in Myra, and it is said that every year his remains exude what is called myrrh, a rose-smelling watery liquid, to which miracles are attributed. It was a very popular, and profitable, site for pilgrimages. But by 1087 Myra was overtaken by Sunni Muslim powers, the Seljuk Turks (you didn't think this Islamic thing was anything new, did you). The Eastern Roman (aka Byzantine) Empire was pretty much losing control of Asia Minor generally at this time, and so his remains were removed to Bari, in Italy on the southern Adriatic coast, which had been under Byzantine control but had been taken by the Lombards and Normans.
Stories disagree whether the remains were removed by pious sailors to whom St Nick himself appeared telling them to keep the saint's remains under Christian control, or by pirates looking to sell them for a big profit. Probably pirates, but let's call them entrepreneurs, sounds better. In any case, they only took the big pieces, and those arrived in Bari on 9 May 1087.
Good for the local pilgrimage industry! The Venetians wanted in on the action, and during the First Crusade (1095-99), originally called to repel the Seljuks, sailors scooped up the fragments and brought them to Venice, started saying his remains were actually brought to Venice, with only an arm left in Bari, and built a big church about it which is still there. An examination in the 1950s revealed the skeleton in Bari is intact. In 2005 British analysis of measurements from that examination showed that Nicholas was right about five feet six inches tall. In 2012, scientific examination of both sets of remains verified they are from the same skeleton.
And the myrrh secretions continue in Bari. Vials of it are for sale (of course) and have been taken all over the world, sometimes in the belief that they can work miracles. The secretions may be from the body, or, may be from the marble itself, since the tomb is below water level in the harbour town, and seeps by capillary action.
On 28 December 2009 the Turkish government announced it will seek the return of the remains from the Italian government, to Demre, the modern town near Myra's ruins. Restoration and excavation have been going on since Tsar Nicholas I of Russia began in 1863 at St Nicholas Church in Demre, built in 520 on the site of Nicholas' church. In 2017, Turkish archaeological excavations revealed frescoes detailing his life and what may well be the grave from which the raiders took his remains. More work is planned. While both St Nick's stated wish to be buried there and the questionable removal of his remains are noted, it has been noted too that it would be real good for that descendant of the pilgrimage industry, tourism.
Indeed there is both a statue of St Nicholas and "Santa Claus" in town! In 2000, the Russian Federation, then barely a decade old following the end of the Soviet Union, in recognition of the longstanding veneration and importance of St Nicholas in Russia, donated a new bronze statue of him for the St Nicholas Church in Demre. But in 2005 the town's mayor removed it for a statue of Santa Claus, more recognisable for tourists. After Russian protests, the statue was relocated but on a smaller pedestal near the church. Turkey now allows Eastern Orthodox liturgy to be celebrated there, which it is on 6 December.
So when do I get my presents?
For centuries on end, the custom in many areas has been, and in some places still is, to exchange gifts, or at least give gifts to children, on 6 December, the Feast of St Nicholas, in honour and imitation of his well-known gift-giving. So what happened? The Reformation, that's what. Among the many things needing reform was excesses relating to the saints and relics thereof, so Luther proposed the Christkind, Christ-child, to refocus on Christ as the gift-giver and for whom the mass (masses, actually, but that's covered in other posts) in celebration of his birth are what Christmas, Christ's Mass, is named. Well intended, but the infant Jesus no more goes around delivering presents than St Nicholas does.
Later non-Lutheran reformations did away with saints days altogether. Of course, Christkind won't deliver gifts if you stay up and wait for it, so you gotta go to bed. The custom caught on in Catholic areas as well, and remains in some areas. Overall, the main effect is, it relocated getting gifts from St Nicholas' Day to Christmas or Christmas Eve, that's where that came from. Also, Kris Kringle -- that's a mispronunciation of Christkind and its diminutive Christkindl, that's heard sometimes as a name for, guess who, Santa Claus. Also the origin of "Secret Santa", a custom found in workplaces and other places.
Lately, even in Germany "Santa Claus" is taking over, as Weinachtsmann from American-style advertising.
What does this mean, a Lutheran might ask. A bunch of saint stuff coming out of the decadence and corruption against which the Reformation stood? Or does it show that be it St Nicholas or Santa Claus, the whole thing is simply story and myth, elaborated by a culture as a means of transmitting certain values, and religion is just culture and myth taking themselves way too seriously?
Or, is it that the stories and myths are taken way too seriously and their point is lost? We can get all caught up in whether it was three daughters on three times, or three daughters on one time, through a window opening or down the chimney into stockings, whether Jesus and Mary came with the Gospel book and the omophorion to Nick himself or in a vision to the Emperor or came anywhere to anyone, whether he struck Arius at all.
Point is, none of that is the point. Somewhere in there is a pastor from a wealthy background who, in response to the gift of salvation through faith in the merits of Christ that God had given him, was a steward of the gifts God had given him. Good works because we are saved, not in order to be saved. Somewhere in there is a pastor who wanted the gratitude for the gifts given through him to be directed to Christ who is the gift of God who saves, and not to an abstract value such as "being a good person", or to himself, neither of which saves. And somewhere in there is a pastor, call him "bishop" or whatever you want, who stood fast for the truth of Jesus as God and Man by faith in the merits of whose death and resurrection we are saved (the Gospel).
Hell yes, Virginia, there's a Santa Claus. It's you, me, us, St Nick and the whole communion of saints. So get out there because you're saved and do something for somebody in a tight spot, and stand for the pure Christian faith and worship confessed in our Confessions, among which is the Nicene Creed btw, instead of all the bogus feel-good happy-clappy crap and Vatican II wannabeism.
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