St. Nicholas is coming to town

Reflections on Life
By Melvin Arrington

St. Nicholas (270-343), whose feast day is December 6, is one of the most popular saints among children and adults alike, undoubtedly due to his association with Santa Claus. In spite of his renown, few facts are known about his life, and much of what we do know is probably legendary.

Born into a wealthy family, Nicholas became famous in his time for his anonymous acts of charity. When he learned of members of his community who were in great need, he would, under the cover of night, secretly enter their house and leave bags of gold.

The most-often recounted story of his generosity involved a poor man’s three daughters who, because they lacked dowries, were unable to marry. This meant they were facing the only other option available to them: a life of prostitution. On three separate nights Nicholas threw a bag of gold through the man’s window, thereby providing the means for each of the three girls to marry.

Nicholas served as bishop of Myra, a city located on the Mediterranean Sea in Asia Minor (modern-day Turkey). During the persecutions of the Emperor Diocletian, he was imprisoned for his faith, but released when Constantine rose to power. In the 11th century, after the Saracens took control of Myra, his relics were secretly removed from the Myra Cathedral and transferred to Bari, Italy. Over the centuries his popularity continued to grow and spread throughout Europe.

At the Council of Nicaea (325) Nicholas condemned Arianism and, according to legend, confronted Arius, the promoter of this heretical doctrine, striking him in the face. Whether he punched him in the nose or, more likely, slapped him, it was a bold gesture of righteous indignation, indicative of his zeal for defending the truth.

Countless miracles have been attributed to him, among them stories of sailors rescued at sea, corn multiplied in order to feed starving people, and children who had been murdered being brought back to life. It is said that a sweet-smelling oil with healing properties exudes from his remains to this day.

So, how did this fourth-century bishop evolve into the Santa Claus and Father Christmas of modern times? Much of it has to do with tales of the saint’s fabled generosity. Those accounts became a primary source, along with the visit of the Magi to the Christ Child, for our custom of giving gifts during the holidays. Linguistics also played a role in this makeover. Over time “Saint” became “Santa” and the last two syllables of his name, “cholas,” turned into “Claus.”

My notion of what Santa Claus looks like was formed by depictions of the jolly ole fellow in Coca-Cola advertising in the 1950s and by the huge Santa that would miraculously appear in the display window at the old McRae’s department store in downtown Jackson during the Christmas shopping season. Both showed him to be a plump, jovial, white-haired old man with a prodigious beard, dressed in a flashy red suit. I’m almost certain the original St. Nicholas looked nothing like those figures.

Popular culture preserves this link between the saint and the North Pole’s most celebrated resident, as seen in the much-loved poem “A Visit from St. Nicholas” by Clement Clarke Moore (1823), which begins: “’Twas the night before Christmas, when all through the house / Not a creature was stirring, not even a mouse; / The stockings were hung by the chimney with care, / In hopes that St. Nicholas soon would be there.”

By 1953, when the singing cowboy Gene Autry released the version of the Yuletide classic, “Santa Claus Is Comin’ to Town” that I remember hearing as a child, the transformation to Santa Claus was complete.

Traditionally, much of the talk during the holidays is focused on acquisition of material goods: “What did Santa Claus bring you?” or “What did you ‘get’ for Christmas?” Our modern culture, through the media, preaches the message over and over, non-stop, that the more things we accumulate the happier we will be.

Just consider all the advertising we see this time of year for luxury items. But more is really less because we eventually grow weary with what we have and seek to acquire different, newer, better products. We want more and more but can never get enough.

Worldly goods just can’t satisfy the longings of the human heart. They may give us a temporary feeling of fulfillment and contentment, but that quickly fades, and soon we’re looking for something else to feed the hunger of our acquisitive nature.

St. Nicholas, on the other hand, teaches that we should place the emphasis not on receiving, acquiring and accumulating, but on giving – a concept that makes no sense at all from a worldly perspective.

Rather than just counting what I have received, perhaps I should reflect instead on what I have given this year. My reflection should also include the question, “Did I give from the heart or just out of a sense of social obligation?”

Love of God and neighbor will motivate us not only to make monetary donations but also an offering of ourselves, that is, our time and talents. There are no substitutes for giving and service. These are the only ways we will find fulfillment and true happiness.

Yes, Virginia, there is a Santa Claus. He’s real, and his true name is Nicholas. On Christmas Eve Ole St. Nick is coming to town and, like the Magi, he’s bearing gifts. May we all join in the spirit of the season and be gift-bearers as well. Merry Christmas to one and all!

(Melvin Arrington is a Professor Emeritus of Modern Languages for the University of Mississippi and a member of St. John Oxford.)