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.
OK "everybody knows" that "Santa Claus" has his origins in the stories about St Nicholas. Like the name, St Nick, or Santa Klaus -- nicknames in some languages coming from the last rather than the first part of a given name, so it's Klaus rather than Nick -- morphing into the name Santa Claus. And "everybody knows" that he went around giving anonymous gifts to kids, 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 yet more stuff for Christmas?
Hell no. St Nicholas came from a wealthy family, 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 a life around by giving them a start their circumstances 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, if you have a certain background, bongs 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 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 gift was called pherna. Dowries are a universal custom in human history dating back to earliest records anywhere. While specifics very 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 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 it 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?
Hell no, again. St Nick was among the most vocal standing for 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. 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, if you will.
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.
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.
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 in 1087 Myra was overtaken by Muslim powers -- the Eastern Roman Empire was pretty much losing control of Asia Minor generally at this time -- and 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.
Either way, good for the local pilgrimage industry though! The Venetians started saying his remains were actually brought to Venice, with only an arm left in Bari, and built a big church about it. 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 five feet tall. And the myrrh secretions continue in Bari. Not to mention, 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. 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!
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, with religion being culture and myth taking itself 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 or was even at the Council at all.
Point is, none of that is the point. Somewhere in there is a pastor from a wealthy background who was a steward of the gifts God had given him in response to the gift of salvation through faith in the merits of Christ that 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 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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