Today, 6 December, the Church commemorates Saint Nicholas, Bishop of Myra, one of the fathers of the Council of Nicaea, and the role model for Santa Claus.
Saint Nicholas (Άγιος Νικόλαος, Aghios Nikolaos, “Victory of the People”) was Nicholas of Myra in Lycia, now known as Demre, near Antalya in present-day Turkey. Because of the many miracles associated with Saint Nicholas, he is also known as Saint Nicholas the Wonderworker. He had a reputation as a secret giver of gifts, such as putting coins in the shoes of those who left them out for him, and because of this, perhaps, was transformed into our present-day Santa Claus.
Saint Nicholas is also the patron saint of sailors, seafarers, merchants, archers, pawn brokers, children and students, and the patron saint of Amsterdam, Liverpool and Russia.
According to legend, as a young man Nicholas was sent as a student to Alexandria. On the voyage by sea between Myra and Alexandria, he is said to have saved the life of a sailor who fell from the ship’s rigging in a storm. In one version of this story, on their arrival back in Myra Nicholas took the sailor to church. The previous Bishop of Myra had just died, and the freshly-returned, heroic Nicholas was elected his successor.
Another story tells how in the middle of a famine, a butcher lured three little children into his house, slaughtered and butchered them, and put their bodies in a pork barrel to sell them off as meat pies. Saint Nicholas, who heard of the butcher’s horrific plans, raised the three boys back to life from the barrel through his prayers.
The best-known story about the bishop tells how a poor man 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 their plight, Nicholas secretly went to their house under the cover of dark and threw three purses filled with gold, one for each daughter, through the window or down the chimney.
Saint Nicholas, Defender of the Church
Personally, I prefer the stories that link Saint Nicholas with the defence of true Christian doctrine. In the year 325, the Emperor Constantine convened the Council of Nicaea, attended by more than 300 bishops from all over the Christian world to debate the nature of the Holy Trinity. It was one of the early Church’s most intense theological questions. Arius from Alexandria was teaching that Jesus Christ was the Son of God but was not equal to God the Father.
As Arius argued his position at length, it is said that Nicholas became agitated to the point that he could no longer bear the attacks on what he believed was essential to the faith. The outraged Nicholas got up, crossed the room, and slapped Arius across the face!
The shocked bishops brought Nicholas to Constantine, who decreed that the bishops themselves should determine the punishment. The bishops stripped Nicholas of his episcopal robes, chained him, and threw him into jail, barring him away from attending the meeting. In the morning, they found his chains loose on the floor and Nicholas dressed in his episcopal robes, quietly reading the Scriptures.
Constantine ordered his release, and Nicholas was promptly reinstated as the Bishop of Myra. As the debate went on, the Council of Nicaea agreed with his views, deciding against the position held by Arius, and agreeing on the Nicene Creed, which remains the symbol of our faith.
Saint Nicholas and his churches
Three of my favourite places associated with Saint Nicholas are Aghios Nikolaos in Crete, the Church of Aghios Nikolaos Rangava in Athens, and the Island of Gemile, off the Aegean coast of Turkey.
Aghios Nikolaos in Crete: the perfect summer hideaway for any Santa Claus
In eastern Crete, the harbour town of Aghios Nikolaos (Άγιος Νικόλαος) is in an attractive location on the Gulf of Mirabello. The town is built around an inner lagoon, Voulismeni, which is surrounded by palm trees and cafés. Modern hotels and apartments may dwarf surviving older buildings, but it is still a charming place, and local people love trying to convince visiting tourists that the lake is fathomless.
The town takes its name from the tiny 11th century church of Aghios Nikólaos. Many years ago, a visit to this Church of Aghios Nikólaos with icons of the saint was enough to end the doubts about Santa Claus that were beginning to emerge in hearts of two small children.
Saint Nicholas Rangava: a Byzantine gem in the Plaka
In Athens, Saint Nicholas Rangava (Ághios Nikólaos Rangavá) is an 11th century Byzantine church on the corner of Prytaneíou and Epichármou streets, between the churches of Aghios Ioánnis o Teológos (Saint John the Divine) and Ayios Geórgios tou Vráchou (Saint George of the Clifs) in the heart of the Anafiotika area of the Plaka, on the south-eastern slopes of the Acropolis.
The church was once attached to the palace of the Rangava family, whose members included several Byzantine Emperors and Oecumenical Patriarchs. Recent restoration work at Saint Nicholas Rangava uncovered several parts of the original church, including the dome, the roof and the northern walls of the church.
The church is only a few steps away from the former home of Sir Richard Church, the Cork-born Irish Philhellene who commanded the Greek army during the Greek War of Independence. And so it is appropriate that the church bell was the first installed in Athens after the liberation from the Turks and the first to ring in 1833 announcing the freedom of Athens from the Turkish rule. It is still rung every year on the Greek National Day, 25 March, and is hung inside the church.
Saint Nicholas Island off the coast of Fethiye: the church ruins are all that remains of a once vibrant Christian community (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)
Saint Nicholas also gave his name to the monastic island of Saint Nicholas, now known as Gemile Island, close to the Ölüdeniz Lagoon and about 9 km south of Fethiye on the Anatolian coast of Turkey.
The island is just beneath the town of Levessi or Kayaköy. It was a prominent religious centre and place of pilgrimage until it was captured by the Turks, and had been a port of call for commercial and cruising vessels from Europe and the Eastern Mediterranean.
Saint Nicholas Island had numerous churches and chapels, and a number of ecclesiastical schools, and island remained home to a significant Greek-speaking population until the last century. Then, like their neighbours in the nearby mainland town of Levessi, above the Ölüdeniz Lagoon, they were forced to leave their homes in the horrific wave of “ethnic cleansing” that swept Anatolia in the 1920s.
Since 1990, a surface survey has been carried out by a Japanese team, which has unearthed 11 churches on and around the island. Although the island is a protected area, tourists pile onto it every day during the holiday season as part of their sailing tour of the Twelve Islands off the coast of Fethiye. As they trek through the former villages, streets and island homes carved into the rocks, making their way up the rocky terrain to the ruined Church of Saint Nicholas at the top of the mountain, few notice the ruins that were once family homes and sacred places of worship. Fewer still ask about the original inhabitants, why they were forced to leave the island, or why their churches and chapels no longer echo with the sound and singing of the Liturgy.
The people of Levessi and their distressing story inspired the novel Birds Without Wings (2004), written by Louis de Bernières as his prequel to Captain Corelli’s Mandolin (1993). But the fate of the people of Saint Nicholas Island has been forgotten and their memory wiped away.
From Europe to America
As the patron saint of sailors, Saint Nicholas was a popular saint among mediaeval seafarers and gave his name to churches in many port cities, including Saint Nicholas Within-the-Walls in Dublin’s Liberties, dating from 1166, Saint Nicholas Without-the-Walls, a parish church that was contained within Saint Patrick’s Cathedral, Dublin, from 1192, and the Collegiate Church of Saint Nicholas in Galway. Columbus named a port in Haiti after Saint Nicholas on 6 December 1492 – perhaps recalling his stop-off in Galway on his way to the New World, and prayers in Saint Nicholas Collegiate Church.
But how did the kindly Bishop Nicholas end up as a roly-poly red-suited American symbol for a secular holiday festivity and commercial busyness?
The first European seafarers to arrive in North America brought their devotion to Saint Nicholas with them: the Vikings dedicated a cathedral to him in Greenland; and centuries later in Florida, the Spaniards named an early settlement Saint Nicholas Ferry – although it’s now known as Jacksonville.
Although it is widely claimed that the Dutch brought Saint Nicholas to their colonies, there is scant evidence to support traditions that he was popular in Dutch New Netherlands, although the colonial Germans in Pennsylvania kept this feast-day and the people of New Amsterdam (New York) later celebrated visits by Saint Nicholas on New Year’s Eve.
An unhistorical history
However, after the American Revolution, New Yorkers remembered with pride the colony’s nearly-forgotten Dutch roots. John Pintard, who formed the New York Historical Society in 1804, promoted Saint Nicholas as the patron of his society and of his city. In January 1809, Washington Irving joined the society and in that year he published the satirical fiction, Knickerbocker’s History of New York, with numerous references to a jolly Saint Nicholas character – not a saintly bishop, but an elfin Dutch burgher with a clay pipe.
And so began the legends about Saint Nicholas and New Amsterdam: that the first Dutch emigrant ship had a figurehead of Saint Nicholas; that Saint Nicholas Day was observed in the colony; that the first church was dedicated to him; and that Saint Nicholas comes down chimneys to bring gifts.
The New York Historical Society held its first Saint Nicholas anniversary dinner on 6 December 1810, and in an image by Alexander Anderson for the occasion, Nicholas was shown in a gift-giving role with children’s treats in stockings hanging at a fireplace.
The jolly elf image was reinforced in 1823, with the publication of the poem, A Visit from Saint Nicholas, now better known as The Night Before Christmas, drawing on Washington Irving’s images of Saint Nicholas. The poem is usually attributed to Clement Clark Moore (1779-1863), Professor of Biblical Languages at the Episcopal General Theological Seminary in New York.
Other artists and writers continued the transformation of Nicholas from a saintly bishop to an elf-like jolly, rotund gift-giver. In 1863, the political cartoonist Thomas Nast began a series of black-and-white drawings in Harper’s Weekly, based on the descriptions in Moore’s poem and Washington Irving’s fiction. These drawings established a rotund Santa with flowing beard, fur garments, and a clay pipe. Along with his changed appearance changes, the saint’s name shifted to Santa Claus – a natural phonetic alteration from the German Sankt Niklaus and the Dutch Sinterklaas.
By the end of the 1920s, a standard American Santa – life-sized, dressed in a red, fur-trimmed suit – was being portrayed in illustrations by N.C. Wyeth, Norman Rockwell and other popular illustrators. In 1931, Coca Cola began 35 years of Santa advertisements that popularised and firmly established this Santa as an icon of contemporary commercial culture.
This Santa appeared in magazines, on billboards, and shop counters, encouraging Americans to see Coke as the solution to “a thirst for all seasons.” Soon he was being used in commercial promotions right across America. Santa’s commercial appeal and success led to the North American Santa Claus being exported around the world, displacing the European Saint. Nicholas, who until then, had managed to hold on to his identity as a Christian bishop and saint.
Saint, Santa and refugees
The metamorphosis of Saint Nicolas into the commercially lucrative Santa Claus has recently come back to his home town of Demre, the modern Turkish town built near the ruins of ancient Myra.
Because Saint Nicholas is a very popular Orthodox saint, the city attracts many Russian tourists. A bronze statue of the saint was donated to the city by the Russian government in 2000, and was given a prominent place on the square in front of the mediaeval church of Saint Nicholas. But the mayor later replaced the statue with by a red-suited plastic Santa Claus. After Russian protests, the statue was returned, but without its original high pedestal, to a corner near the church.
The restoration of the church is now under way, and the Turkish Ministry of Culture gave permission last year for the Divine Liturgy to be celebrated at the site, as well as donating 40,000 Turkish Lira to the project.
But as Christmas approaches, I cannot forget the children of Levessi and Saint Nicholas Island, whose descendants have a very different idea of a stay-at-home Christmas.
And I think of Saint Nicholas as the bishop who cared for the poor, was the patron saint of children and seafarers, the generous and benevolent dispenser of gifts, the defender and rescuer of children in distress and poverty and who were in danger of exploitation and abuse, and the defender of Orthodox Christian doctrine. He remains a model for how all Christians, especially priests and bishops, are meant to live, with Christ not just at the centre of our Christmas festivities this year, but at the centre of our lives every year.
Canon Patrick Comerford is Director of Spiritual Formation, the Church of Ireland Theological College