ST. NICHOLAS DAY December 6th
In the Czech Republic and Slovakia, the Christmas season begins on December 5th, the eve of St. Nicholas Day. The modern myth here in the UK of Santa Claus coming down the chimney on Christmas Eve, December 24th, has evolved from traditions surrounding the real St. Nicholas, the Bishop of Myra, who died AD 343. The anniversary of his death, December 6th, became a day of celebration in Eastern Europe and, eventually, throughout the Christian world.
Nicholas was born in the village of Patara on the southern coast of Turkey during the 3rd century. His parents died when he was a young man and left him a considerable fortune which he began to give to the poor almost immediately. When the Bishop of Myra died suddenly, the other regional bishops assembled to select his replacement. While gathered in the chapel, the Archbishop announced that an angel had appeared and told him that the next person to enter the chapel door would become the bishop of Myra. Nicholas, still a very young man, was the next person to enter and was consecrated bishop on the spot.
Bishop Nicholas became known for his generosity to the poor and his devotion to the welfare of children. One story of St. Nicholas' generosity tells of a poor man with three daughters who were destined to be sold into slavery because he could not provide a dowry. Mysteriously, on three different occasions, a bag of gold was dropped down his chimney, and once the bag landed in a stocking drying by the fire.
This, of course, was the genesis of the modern custom of hanging stockings from the mantle and having them filled with gifts by Santa Claus.
Every December 5th, throughout the Czech Republic and Slovakia, Mikulas (St. Nicholas) is remembered for his love of children. Three figures, one dressed as St. Nicholas, one dressed as an Angel, and one dressed as the Devil, parade slowly around the little town squares, and ask the children assembled if they have been good during the past year. Most of the children, of course, say yes. They are rewarded with sweets. If, however, the saint suspects they have been naughty, they get a sack of black coal or hard potatoes. According to the tradition, really naughty children are placed in the Devil's sack and sent to hell!
Today's parents exhort their children to be good boys and girls and "perhaps" Santa will bring them the gifts they put on their Christmas list.
Here in England, Father Christmas was originally part of an old English midwinter festival. He was normally dressed in green, a sign of the returning spring. In this earliest form, Father Christmas was not the bringer of gifts for small children nor did he come down the chimney.
It wasn't until 1843, when Charles Dickens published A Christmas Carol that Father Christmas, dressed in red, started appearing on late Victorian Christmas cards.
The image of Father Christmas being a jolly fat man dressed in red was created by an American poet, Clement C. Moore, in 1822. Drawing on all the myths surrounding St. Nicholas and Father Christmas, he imagined Santa Claus like this:
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 sack.
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 on 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 bowl full of jelly.
He was chubby and plump, a right jolly old elf.
And I laughed when I saw him, in spite of myself.
The traditions surrounding a 2nd century saint, who was remembered for his generosity to the poor and his love of children, have evolved down through the centuries to become our modern, more commercial myth of Santa Claus. As often happens with myths and customs over time, the holidays of St. Nicholas Day, December 6th, and Christmas Day, December 25th, have been combined, and the true meaning of Christmas, celebrating the birth of Christ, has been overshadowed by the arrival of Santa Claus.
England has more than 500 churches named for St. Nicholas, and the members of these congregations are making an effort to refocus the true significance of St. Nicholas by adopting the customs still practiced throughout the Czech Republic and Slovakia.
At Holy Trinity Church in Sloane Street, for example, St. Nicholas appears to all the children assembled and teaches them who he truly was and what he stood for. The figure dressed as St. Nicholas begins the service by asking the children who they think he is.
"Father Christmas," they reply.
After he finishes telling them the true story of St. Nicholas, he asks them again. "Children, who am I?"
This time they cry out as loud as before: "St. Nicholas!"
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