Brawly Old Saint Nicholas

On the Feast of Saint Nicholas, December 6, 2010

Thomas Nast's most famous drawing, "Merry Old Santa Claus", from the January 1, 1881 edition of Harper's Weekly.

Ironically, Santa Claus is even easier to believe in now that I am an adult, but I find his story harder to tell. Don’t get me wrong: I am a dyed-in-the-wool Santa fan. Always have been, no questions asked. A twelve-year difference between me and my youngest brother made sure that the big man kept up Christmas visits to my parents’ house long after he had stopped visiting any of my college friends. Even as a youngster, the typical Santa proofs required by my increasingly cynical peers were simply irrelevant to me.

  • Looking different in every picture? – Big deal. Have you ever looked the same on-camera twice?
  • Impossible to travel the whole world in one night? – Magic reindeer. Duh.
  • Fitting down a chimney? – Clearly, you have never seen Mary Poppins.
  • Parents? – Yeah, right. Like they could make all of those toys.

Whatever. I didn’t need their validation. I had proof.

When I was four years old, before my brothers were born, we lived with Grandma and Grandpa for a while. Grandpa was really sick with something called cancer, and Grandma had broken her leg stepping out of the pickup truck at the dump. As a result neither one of them could climb the steps in their big, two-story vintage California ranch house so they both slept downstairs on the living room sofa bed while Mom and Dad and I took their room upstairs. This was an arrangement we kept through Grandpa’s death the following February, but since the grown-ups were shielding me from the gravity of Grandpa’s condition, I was free to enjoy the warmth of the holidays in the presence of my extended family. As a result, Christmas 1974 still lives in my memory as one of the coziest Christmases ever, even though it turned out to be Grandpa’s last.

I was concerned, however, about the Santa situation that year. If we weren’t at home that Christmas Eve, how was Santa ever going to find me? It dawned on me at bedtime, however, that if I left a forwarding note at our house he might make an extra stop at Grandma and Grandpa’s. The only problem was the chimney opening into the living room where they were sleeping. I knew Santa wasn’t keen on being seen, and little kids who stayed up to see him might miss him entirely (Grandpa told me he had tried that one Christmas Eve as a boy himself, only to get a pinch on the toe after Santa found him hiding under his covers at the old Georgia farm). What if Grandma and Grandpa scared him away? I went up to bed somewhat consoled when they agreed to lay low when he got there.

Next morning, I was delighted to see that my ploy had worked beyond all expectations. Not only had Santa found us and brought me the Big Wheel I wanted, Grandpa had the presence of mind to keep a tape recorder handy and actually captured audio of their Santa encounter! There they were, asleep, when Santa slid down the chimney and woke them up. (Turns out the big man actually travels with a squeaky elf assistant to manage his list and the inventory. I bet you didn’t know that.) They wished each other Merry Christmas, and talked about the toys he was unpacking. The fact that this  tape was subsequently and mysteriously lost for years (no doubt put away and forgotten during the family’s grieving two months later) only added to its unimpeachable mystique in my memory. Thanks to Grandpa’s quick thinking, I didn’t just get presents, I got personal contact, an actual “Ho-Ho-Ho!” as up the chimney he rose, as well as the only recording I have to remember Grandpa’s voice.

There can be no doubt about it: Santa Claus is a living, breathing personality as real as you or me.

Which makes it rather jarring to see where he is buried.

The Tomb of Saint Nicholas in Bari, Italy (Photo by LooiNL - under the Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 Unported license)

That is one of the awkward parts of the Santa Claus story that somehow slips under the radar of secular Christmas culture. Even growing up an American Protestant (United Methodist, to be precise), it had never occurred to me that to be a Saint, Nicholas had in fact died and gone to heaven. Protestants don’t really think about saints, you see, and when we did, it was usually with a lower-case “s” in the sense of calling a really good person, or someone you love, a “living saint.”

Growing beyond that understanding was one of the factors that ultimately led to my exploration and eventual embrace of Catholicism as an adult. Here we talk of a “communion of saints,” a community of all who have died and now live in the Divine presence. The Christian New Testament describes them as a great “cloud of witnesses,” witnesses not only to a faith lived in their historical lives, but also to a spiritual reality they experience now beyond death and which we hope one day to share. My earlier Protestant understanding of saints as mere inspirational case studies in humanity gradually gave way to a more primal Christian experience: reaching out to those alive in the Divine, and asking their help to “persevere in running the race that lies before us” through their prayers. Yet even in Catholic circles, where belief in the communion of saints is commonplace, woolly thinking around Santa Claus persists. If one only takes the time to connect the lore surrounding “Jolly Old Saint Nick” with his terrestrial life and legends, then far from being a figure shrouded in mystery, Santa actually has a detailed and compelling biography. As an adult convert to Catholicism, however, that makes Santa much harder to explain to my kids.

Santa vs. the Shipwreck (Icon from the Workshop of Ioannis Petrakis, Elounda, Crete)

Saint Nicholas was a 4th Century Christian Turk. The Bishop of the port city of Myra in the Eastern Empire under Byzantium, even during his life he developed a reputation as a wonder-worker. He was a man locally revered for such holiness that he was believed to walk especially close with God, and tremendous deeds were attributed to the efficacy of his prayers, no doubt reinforcing the meaning of his name: “the people’s victory.” Sailors sought his blessing for safe voyages at sea and even reported miraculous rescues during storms on the open ocean by the good Bishop himself (perhaps explaining his experience flying in inclement weather). Famines were averted through his intercession (and possible supply chain management skill with wheat shipments through his city).

Nicholas was especially noted for his generosity. One famous incident in his legend tells of his efforts to aid the daughters of a poor family at risk of turning to prostitution to support themselves without a dowry. Rather than shame the family with public charity, however, he made night-time visits to their home and delivered three purses of gold through the window under cover of darkness (though he has since shifted to chimneys, his basic approach remains the same today). Though best known as a patron saint of children, few realize the gruesome origins of that tradition: according to legend, three little children were murdered by a vicious butcher intent upon selling them as ham during a famine. Saint Nicholas is said to have discovered the crime and resurrected the victims from the barrel where they were brining. Horrific and imaginary as it may be, that story gives us perhaps the truest glimpse into the soul of the Saint: underneath the “jolly old elf” lies a great lion of man, fiercely guarding those who can’t guard themselves.

Nicholas, it seems, was also a bit of a brawler (I bet you didn’t know that either). This was a man who visited pagan temples throughout Myra to smash the idols of Roman state religion. As a result, he was arrested and exiled during the persecutions of Diocletian. After Emperor Constantine’s accession made Nicholas’ faith the official religion of Rome, he was restored to his position and even attended the famous Council of Nicea. There, history records him as one of a number of Bishops to oppose the stance of Arius denying the Divinity of Christ. For Nicholas, whose imprisonment and memory of friends being tortured and killed for precisely that belief was all too recent, this was no mere intellectual dispute; those were fighting words! According to the Orthodox Church in America:

St Nicholas, fired with zeal for the Lord, assailed the heretic Arius with his words, and also struck him upon the face. For this reason, he was deprived of the emblems of his episcopal rank and placed under guard. But several of the holy Fathers had the same vision, seeing the Lord Himself and the Mother of God returning to him the Gospel and omophorion. The Fathers of the Council agreed that the audacity of the saint was pleasing to God, and restored the saint to the office of bishop.

Saint Nicholas of Myra, Reconstructed

Santa’s feisty nature was further corroborated when his skeletal remains were recently exhumed and submitted to a forensic examination by anthropologists. Nicholas’ skull clearly had a broken nose, similar to the kind of injury you’d see in a boxer. Today, I can’t recite the Nicene Creed during mass without thinking of Santa’s righteous left hook!

Nicholas lived another two decades before he died on December 6, 343 AD and was buried at his request in his native Anatolia, saying “I was born here, raised here and will be buried here.” Tales of his holy life and generosity spread throughout the region, and Santa’s tomb became a popular pilgrimage site you can still visit today. In Europe, the Feast day commemorating his death began to be marked by small gifts left by the Saint, before eventually migrating to Christmas itself due to its proximity on the calendar. Meanwhile, medieval conflict with Islam made access to his tomb difficult, so various Italian cities vied to get Nicholas’ relics for their own with sailors from Bari stealing them away in 1087. It is a matter of historical dispute whether they were actually a deputation sent to retrieve the relics from lands about to fall under Islamic rule, or merely pirates taking advantage of the civil unrest to loot for profit. In either case, Santa’s bones finally came to rest in Italy, though Turkey is filing a request for their return today.

It is that scrappy fighting spirit that I love most about Santa Claus. It is something most people ignore and even find shocking, but if you think about it, he could not be Santa (or a Saint) without it. Christmas toys may seem innocuous enough, but like every great giver, his actions are a personal campaign to beat back the darkness… both of the winter and of the heart. In the world of our common humanity, we keep true power at arm’s length, rendering it cute before it can change who we are. The world of story, however, harbors no such illusions, as C.S. Lewis described the best in “The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe:”

He was a huge man in a bright red robe (bright as hollyberries) with a hood that had fur inside it and a great white beard that fell like a foamy waterfall over his chest. Everyone knew him because, though you see people of his sort only in Narnia, you see pictures of them and hear them talked about even in our world – the world on this side of the wardrobe door. But when you really see them in Narnia it is rather different. Some of the pictures of Father Christmas in our world make him look only funny and jolly. But now that the children actually stood looking at him they didn’t find it quite like that. He was so big, and so glad, and so real, that they all became quite still. They felt very glad, but also solemn.

Thankfully, stories are more honest than we are. Story is where faith comes to life so the saint can show us who (and whose) he really is. If he were no more than a “broad face and a little round belly,” we would have outgrown Santa Claus long ago. True-believers know better: Santa Claus is a Saint. Only a saint has set his eyes on God and his ears on the world. Only a saint lives beyond the furthest poles of human existence and can ride the wind with reindeer with the little people invisible to mortal eyes. Only a saint can visit everywhere at once, finding a way into any locked room or heart. Only a saint can judge the content of that heart and find you no matter where you lay your head on Christmas Eve. Only a saint accepts what we set out for him there, and gives when there is nothing to spare. In the end, it is not the toys that are Santa’s gift to the centuries, but just that he teaches us what saints truly are before we even know we believe in them.

© Christopher W. Buckley and StoryWiseGuy, 2010. Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from this blog’s author and/or owner is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to Christopher W. Buckley and StoryWiseGuy with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.

For authentic Greek iconography, visit the workshop of Ioannis Petrakis at http://www.greek-icons.com/

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14 thoughts on “Brawly Old Saint Nicholas

  1. Christine Buckley

    Hi Chris – I am Brandon’s wife – I loved this – thank you so much for forwarding it on – it truly captures the feeling of the season. Happy Holidays – C

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    1. Thanks Christine-
      So glad you checked it out, and even more glad you replied!
      Keep coming back and there will be more (I aim for updates at least twice a month).
      Subscribe by e-mail or RSS reader and you won’t miss future posts.
      Have a blessed Advent and “Hi!” to Brandon and the family-
      Chris

      Like

  2. Paul Grubb

    What an insightful and educational piece, Chris. I truly had no knowledge about all the Saint Nick details you provided, and some of them were surprisingly grotesque so you’d think I would have heard about them somewhere along the way. I was most moved by your discussion of Christmas 1974, and I wanted to thank you for sharing it. Hard to believe I’ve known you as long as I have and never heard that story. I honestly have no recollection of Christmas when I was 4, but neither did I have any such significant material for making memories at that time. I do think my own grandfather died right around the time yours did, which I found fascinating (and, of course, sad).

    The notion of “belief” with respect to Santa Claus is a very compelling topic, as well. I personally wrote letters to Santa long after my fellow elementary-schoolers had stopped. In part, I enjoyed seeing my name in the local paper, which published select letters to Santa that they promised to then forward on appropriately. But I was also always drawn to the idea of a benevolent gift-giver who appeared to bear universal affection for all people (I didn’t restrict it to children only since my folks would occasionally receive something from Santa, as well). I maintain the same fascination in adulthood, and I appreciate what he stands for, especially as I see the spirit of his generosity (even when I was out of work a year ago at this time) reflected in the excitement of my children (including my teenager). I honestly don’t know for certain where they stand in terms of “belief,” but I’m pretty sure I have a good idea, and I just hope they retain my enthusiasm for the principle as they age. As much as I found the graphics to be creepy and the story itself to be weird and convoluted, I did resonate with the strong message about the value of believing in the movie “The Polar Express”. You can be 40 years old (or older) and still believe in what Santa represents, even if you’re old enough to understand the scientific analysis of his work: http://www.physlink.com/fun/istheresanta.cfm.

    Thanks again, Chris. And Merry Christmas. 🙂

    – Paul

    P.S. Love the snowfall on your site. It would be neat if it could accumulate at the bottom of the page. 🙂

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    1. Thanks Paul, as always, for reading AND replying!

      Actually when we hung out most, I don’t think I’d recovered the tape yet, so it wasn’t top of mind. It was just one of those lost family treasures I expected never to find again.

      I’m one of the few people who thought the Polar Express film was actually better than the book, and the latent creepiness of it is what sold the hope for me. Favorite, most Christmasy scene? When the ticket flies out of the train coach and we are treated to a close-up handicam perspective of its course through the forest, over a waterfall, under the legs of wolves and under the train before making its way back to the hand of its owner on board. Diving out of the “cozy” and into the “wild” of Christmas and then back into the “cozy” said something about the blessedness of creation. Reminded me a lot, actually, of the Christmas song about Alfie the Christmas Tree that John Denver sang with the Muppets (http://j.mp/fsQWgY).

      I think I remember reading the physicist’s Santa with you in Spy magazine way back in the day. See, problem with that is it perpetuates the very notion I’m looking to debunk: that Santa is limited by human experience. If he’s a Saint, then rules don’t apply any more than they do for any heavenly being. And even if you don’t buy that, I laugh at the scientist mind that claims no known species of reindeer can fly. Pah! Science can only speak to the observed. As far as I know, EVERY species of reindeer can fly. It’s just not a behavior they exhibit under observation.

      😉

      Cheers to you and yours.

      Like

  3. Chris,

    Great post! I know I told you that on Twitter a while back, but I remembered your post earlier today because I wanted to pass it along to a few friends on this week of Christmas. They enjoyed it too! I also plan to share it on my blog this week on a post of links to check out in the next two days.

    Have a blessed Christmas!

    -Angelica

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  4. Pingback: Quick Christmas Reads | Through A Glass Onion

  5. Tim Buckley

    Now wait a minute Chris!!! You and I both know it was Burger Burgermeister’s outlaw of toys that a young Chris Kringle protested through his toy giving. Katie and I watched the classic “Santa Claus is coming to Town” last night. I love that one. A very close second to my favorite Frosty the Snowman.

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  6. Santa Claus is alive and well in the hearts of children who believe all around the world. He exists as certainly as love and generosity and devotion exist, and you know that they abound and give to your life its highest beauty and joy.

    ~Happy Christmas and Merry New Year from our family to you and yours

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    1. Amen to that!

      In fact, I think I heard him downstairs just a few minutes ago. I’m just settling down for a long winter’s nap, though and I’m not taking any chances until the morning.

      Merry Christmas!

      Like

  7. Dear Chris,

    What a lovely rendition of the story of St. Nick. You are indeed a gifted writer! On reading it, I immediately thought of a high school friend of mine, Santa Dave Reid on Facebook, who will really appreciate seeing it too: http://www.facebook.com/santa.dave.r Dave has made an avocation of playing Santa Claus. He carries business cards with him the year round, which say, “Yes, you actually have met Santa Claus.” If you take a look at the photos on his Facebook page, you’ll see what I mean. I don’t think the profile image is him, but the photo album surely is. I will enjoy sharing this with him!

    By the way, I have no doubt about the existence of Santa Claus in my own life! I never stopped believing for a single minute.

    Best regards, Skip

    Like

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