Thursday, 24 December 2009

The message of Saint Nicholas

Patrick Browne’s photograph on the front-page of The Irish Times shows the Nativity scene in a stain glass window in Saint Augustine’s Church, New Ross, Co Wexford

In today’s edition [24 December 2009], The Irish Times marks Christmas Eve with this editorial on page 19:

The Night before Christmas

’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 Saint Nicholas soon would be there.
The children were nestled all snug in their beds,
while visions of sugar plums danced in their heads.
And Mama in her ’kerchief, and I in my cap,
had just settled our brains for a long winter’s nap.

Those opening lines of Clement Clarke Moore’s much-loved poem A Visit from Saint Nicholas will have joy-filled resonances throughout Ireland tonight as children head to bed in happy anticipation of a visit from Santa Claus. And parents will be hoping that these children sleep well and safe – and that when they wake it will be to the joys of Christmas and its true message.

Since it was first published in 1823, Moore’s poem has shaped many of our images of Santa Claus: his appearance, the night of his visit, his means of transport, the number and names of his reindeer, his landing on roofs, and how he climbs down chimneys with toys to fill stockings by the fire. Moore was a professor of biblical studies, a classical scholar and the son of an Episcopalian bishop. And so there is no accident in the way he transformed Saint Nicholas of Myra, a Byzantine bishop, into Santa Claus.

Saint Nicholas was one of the fathers of the Council of Nicaea, where he defended traditional Christian doctrine. But as myths developed around his life, he became a secret giver of gifts, putting coins in the shoes of poor children. One story tells how a butcher lured three children into his house, slaughtered them and planned to sell them as meat pies. When Nicholas heard of the ghoulish crime, he prayed and raised the three boys back to life. Another tradition tells how three poor girls were left without a dowry and faced being sold into prostitution. After dark, Nicholas went to their house and threw three purses filled with gold, one for each, down the chimney.

Victorian writers built on those mediaeval myths, transforming Nicholas from a saintly bishop to a roly-poly gift-giver. But the metamorphosis of the generous bishop into the commercially lucrative Santa Claus should not detract from the lessons to be learned from the myths about Saint Nicholas as the bishop who cared for the poor and who was the defender and rescuer of children endangered by poverty, degradation, exploitation and abuse.

In the light of recent events – including the resignation ysterday of a second Catholic bishop – the legacy of Saint Nicholas also provides a timely example. On this Christmas Eve, Nicholas reminds us that the care of children and their protection from abuse and exploitation is not an extra in the ministry of a bishop. It must be at its very heart. When all bishops live up to this responsibility, in word and in action, then we can echo the original final line in Moore’s poem: “Happy Christmas to all, and to all a good-night.”

The Night before Christmas

Clement Clarke Moore

’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 Saint Nicholas soon would be there;
The children were nestled all snug in their beds,
While visions of sugar-plums danced in their heads;
And mamma in her ’kerchief, and I in my cap,
Had just settled down for a long winter’s nap,
When out on the lawn there arose such a clatter,
I sprang from the bed to see what was the matter.

Away to the window I flew like a flash,
Tore open the shutters and threw up the sash.
The moon on the breast of the new-fallen snow
Gave the lustre of mid-day to objects below,
When, what to my wondering eyes should appear,
But a miniature sleigh, and eight tiny reindeer,
With a little old driver, so lively and quick,
I knew in a moment it must be St. Nick.

More rapid than eagles his coursers they came,
And he whistled, and shouted, and called them by name;
“Now, Dasher! now, Dancer! now, Prancer and Vixen!
On, Comet! on Cupid! on, Donder and Blitzen!
To the top of the porch! to the top of the wall!
Now dash away! dash away! dash away all!”

As dry leaves that before the wild hurricane fly,
When they meet with an obstacle, mount to the sky,
So up to the house-top the coursers they flew,
With the sleigh full of toys, and St. Nicholas too.
And then, in a twinkling, I heard on the roof
The prancing and pawing of each little hoof.

As I drew in my head, and was turning around,
Down the chimney St. Nicholas came with a bound.
He was dressed all in fur, from his head to his foot,
And his clothes were all tarnished with ashes and soot;
A bundle of toys he had flung on his back,
And he looked like a peddler just opening his pack.

His eyes – how they twinkled! his dimples how merry!
His cheeks were like roses, his nose like a cherry!
His droll little mouth was drawn up like a bow,
And the beard of his chin was as white as the snow;
The stump of a pipe he held tight in his teeth,
And the smoke it encircled his head like a wreath;
He had a broad face and a little round belly,
That shook, when he laughed like a bowlful of jelly.

He was chubby and plump, a right jolly old elf,
And I laughed when I saw him, in spite of myself;
A wink of his eye and a twist of his head,
Soon gave me to know I had nothing to dread;
He spoke not a word, but went straight to his work,
And filled all the stockings; then turned with a jerk,
And laying his finger aside of his nose,
And giving a nod, up the chimney he rose;
He sprang to his sleigh, to his team gave a whistle,
And away they all flew like the down of a thistle.

But I heard him exclaim, ere he drove out of sight,
“Happy Christmas to all, and to all a good-night.”