Thursday, December 6, 2012

He Who Would Be Santa

15th century woodcut of Nicholas
In the introduction to Arian Christianity I mentioned how discussion at the Council of Nicaea in 325 became so heated that Bishop Nicholas of Myra slapped Arius' face. Much of what we think we know about Nicholas is difficult to substantiate, but this has not stopped historians from talking about him. In fact, it is the least-documented information we have that has developed his reputation the most.

Nicholas (c.270-6 December 343) was born at Patara, in Asia Minor. As a young man he made a pilgrimage to Egypt and Palestine; upon his return he was made Bishop of Myra, not far from his city of birth. During the reign of the Emperor Diocletian, Nicholas was imprisoned, but freed once the Christian Emperor Constantine came to power.

He attended the first ecumenical council of the new Catholic Church in 325, which was called by Constantine in order to determine the (in)validity of Arianism (see the link above). Nicholas is counted among the numerous men who assembled there, and (as mentioned) became passionate about the debate.

Well, that's the story anyway. There are some lists of participants on which his name is not found, casting doubt on his presence at Nicaea. But his importance to legend is unquestioned. His popularity as a saint in Greece and Russia began early. Emperor Justinian I (483-565) built a church to Nicholas at Constantinople. He was revered in Germany during the reign of Emperor Otto II (955-983).

And you know you're an important person when they dig up your body in order to keep it safe (as monks had done in England with St. Cuthbert). In 1071 the Turks took control of most of Asia Minor. Among other things, this meant losing control of the burial site of Nicholas. Byzantium regained control under Emperor Alexios I Comnenus, but sailors from Bari in southern Italy took it upon themselves to save the saint's bones. They brought the relics to Bari in 1087, where they have remained. (Actually, they brought the major bones, leaving fragments. Venetian sailors during the First Crusade brought the remainder to Venice where they were put in a church. Scientific investigation in the 1990s proved that the bones in Bari and Venice belong to the same man.)

Traditional pawnbroker sign
The chief story of his giving nature—the story that eventually gave rise to the legend of Santa Claus—is about a man with three daughters for whom he did not have enough money for dowries. Without a dowry, marriage was unlikely, and the fear was that they would wind up as prostitutes in order to support themselves. Nicholas passed by on three consecutive nights and each night threw a bag of gold in the window, saving the future of the daughters. Because of this he has been made the patron saint of (besides children and sailors, etc.) pawnbrokers; some think the traditional image of three golden balls for a pawnbroker shop is because of the three bags of gold. A 15th century woodcut now in the British Museum (see image above) shows Nicholas laying three gold balls instead of bags into the girls' bed. (An alternate theory has the three balls connected to the Medici family heraldry.)

His feast day is today, December 6. In some countries, children put their shoes outside their doors on the evening of the 5th, and on the morning of the 6th find chocolate, coins, or trinkets.

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