Sunday, 6 December 2009

Saint Nicholas Day … and counting the days to Christmas

Winter on the beach in Skerries ... one of my photographs in the current edition of Skerries News (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 20090

Patrick Comerford

When I was living in Wexford, 8 December marked the beginning of the Christmas shopping period. Roman Catholic shop-owners closed down for the Feast of the Immaculate Conception, and many headed off to Dublin for a day’s shopping.

But I’ve always regarded today, 6 December, as the beginning of the countdown to Christmas Day. It provides a full month’s span from the Feast Day of Saint Nicholas to the Day of Epiphany on 6 January.

Saint Nicolas was named in the prayers and intercessions at the Sung Eucharist in Christ Church Cathedral this morning. The preacher was Canon Ben Neill of Dalkey, the setting was Duarte Lobo’s Missa Vox clamantis, and we also had a Communion Motet by John Stainer.

Some friends were supposed to drop around on Saturday afternoon and to stay on for dinner, but at the last moment they had to call off.

However, I wasn’t going to miss out on my weekend beach walk. And so this afternoon, after the Cathedral Eucharist, I headed out to Skerries.

In Gerry’s, I picked up the Skerries News ( – I’m the a guest writer in the current bumper New Year issue – along with the Sunday papers and a few bottles of their latest wine bargains before crossing over to the Olive (, for lunch in my favourite north Dublin cafĂ© ... and for some Christmas presents.

By now, it was high tide, and two of us walked along the strand as the winter waves tumbled in the very edge of the dunes. It’s a long time since I’ve seen such a high tide in Skerries – the sea spray was high and white as far back as Holmpatrick, and lapping over the walls.

We climbed the steps behind the Martello Tower up to Red Island, where the waves were covering both diving points, and then headed down the pier to the end of the harbour.

Once again Saint Nicholas the gift-giver came to mind ... as the patron saint of sailors and fishermen.

The real Santa Claus took to heart the admonition to “sell what you own and give the money to the poor,” using his inheritance to assist the needy, the sick, and the suffering. Bishop Nicholas of Myra, who died on 6 December 343, was known for his generosity to those in need, his love for children, and his concern for sailors and ships.

One of the many stories about Saint Nicholas tells of three theological students who were travelling on their way to Athens to study. A wicked innkeeper robbed and murdered them, hiding their bodies in a large pickling tub. It so happened that Bishop Nicholas, travelling along the same route, stopped at the very same inn. In the night he dreamt of the crime, got up, and summoned the innkeeper. As Nicholas prayed earnestly, the three theology students were restored to life and wholeness. And so, I suppose, Saint Nicholas is the patron and protector of ordinands.

Another story tells of the young Nicholas going on a pilgrimage to the Holy Land. Returning by sea, a mighty storm threatened to wreck the ship. Nicholas calmly prayed, and the terrified sailors were amazed when the wind and waves suddenly calmed, sparing them all. And so Saint Nicholas is also the patron of sailors and voyagers.

On the afternoon of this Saint Nicholas’ Day, I took one more stroll along the beach in Skerries.

My sarcoidosis had made me tired this week, with some heavy bouts of dry coughing, and pains in my joints, particularly my knees, and night-time cramps in my feet. But this afternoon’s walks along the beach, around Red island and along the pier in Skerries, were good for both my lungs and my legs.

Then it was back through Rush and Lusk, before heading back into Dublin.

I may have sarcoidosis, but as long as I can have beach walks like that in Skerries, sarcoidosis will never have me.

Now, how can I gently break it to the student in the Church of Ireland Theological Institute that Santa Claus is the patron saint of ordinands?