The Feast of Saint Nicholas,
4th Century Bishop
Today's observance is one that should not be overlooked.
Yes, Virginia, there is a Santa Claus.
The passage of time may have obscured his life into legend, but the most important thing to remember today is that Nicholas, the archetype of our present-day iconic Santa Claus, was indeed a real person who walked the earth.
Wilson's Almanac is an online reference source I use when it comes to the lesser observed celebrations of the Season of Light. Here we find the following - and I've included just a few 'tip of the iceberg' tidbits:
Nicholas (Nikolaus) (c. 270 - 345/352) became a Bishop of Myra in Lycia, Asia Minor (modern day Turkey) when quite young. Among Christians, he is known as the 'Wonderworker'. Several acts of kindness and miracles are attributed to him. He has always been a very popular saint: in England at least 372 churches are named in his honor.
Nicholas's early activities as a priest are said to have occurred during the reign of co-ruling Roman Emperors Diocletian (reigned 284 - 305) and Maximian (reigned 286 - 305) from which comes the estimation of his age. Diocletian issued an edict in 303 authorizing the systematic persecution of Christians across the Empire. Following the abdication of the two Emperors on May 1, 305, the policies of their successors towards Christians were different. In the Western part of the Empire, Constantius Chlorus (reigned 305 - 306) put an end to the systematic persecution upon receiving the throne. In the Eastern part, Galerius (reigned 305 - 311) continued the persecution until 311 when, from his deathbed, he issued a general edict of toleration. The persecution of 303 - 311 is considered to be the longest in the history of the Empire. Nicholas survived this period, although his activities at the time are uncertain. He was present at the Council of Nicaea (325) and it is said that he punched Arius on the jaw. (Arius was the promulgator of the Arian heresy, which was condemned during that council session.)
Enemy of the old religion
The destruction of several pagan temples is also attributed to him, among them one temple of Artemis (also known as Diana). Arguing that the celebration of Diana's birth is on December 6, some authors have speculated that this date was deliberately chosen for Nicholas's feast day to overshadow or replace the pagan celebrations.
Nicholas is also known for coming to the defence of the falsely accused, often preventing them from being executed, and for his prayers on behalf of sailors and other travellers. The popular worshipping of Nicholas as a saint seems to have started relatively early considering that Justinian I, Emperor of the Eastern Roman Empire (reigned 527 - 565) is reported to have built a temple in Nicholas's honour in Constantinople, the Roman capital of the time.
But early in the reign of Alexius I Comnenus (reigned 1081 - 1118), Myra was overtaken by Islamic invaders. Taking advantage of the confusion, sailors from Bari, Italy, seized the remains of the saint over the objections of the Orthodox monks then caring for them. Returning to Bari they brought the remains with them on May 9, 1087. Some observers reported seeing myrrh exude from these relics, and 30 people were cured of diseases; ever since, the tomb of Nicholas has been a favorite of pilgrims.
He compelled thieves to restore some stolen goods to their owners, so became patron of thieves. Saint Nikolaus or St Nicholas is celebrated in several Western European countries. His reputation for gift giving comes partly from a story of three young women who were too poor to afford a dowry for their marriages:
Legend of the 3 dowries
A nobleman of Patara had three daughters; he was so poor he couldn't provide their dowries and they were going to have to go into prostitution. St Nick had inherited a large fortune, and he resolved to help, but secretly. As he went to their house at night, wondering how to do this, the moon came out from behind a cloud and lit up a window through which he threw a bag of gold, which fell at the girls' father's feet. This enable him to provide a dowry for his first daughter. The next night, St Nicholas threw another in, and thus procured a dowry for the second daughter. The father wanted to see the benefactor, so on the third night he saw St Nick coming and grabbed his cloak, saying "O Nicholas! servant of God! why seek to hide thyself?" The saint made him promise not to tell any one. From this came the custom on St Nicholas's eve of putting out presents for children. (This may also be where the custom of gifts placed in stockings originated.) For his helping the poor, St Nicholas is the patron saint of pawnbrokers; the three gold balls traditionally hung outside a pawnshop are symbolic of the three sacks of gold.
Legend of the evil innkeeper (The Pickled Boys)
A gentleman of Asia sent his two sons to Athens for education, and had them stop to see the holy Archbishop of Myra, St Nick. They stayed in an inn where the keeper chopped them up and salted them down like bacon. St Nick was warned of this in a terrible vision and went and charged the landlord with the crime. He confessed with contrition and asked the forgiveness of Heaven. Nick did this and also restored the boys. In art, St Nick is often shown next to a tub with naked children in it.
The leap between sainthood and legend, between Sinterklaas (as St. Nicholas is called in The Netherlands) and Santa Claus, should be celebrated as part of our accumulated tradition. It takes nothing away from the observance of Christmas, especially when we realize that Nicholas was indeed a real person, and he embodied that which we are called to do. Sadly, it is often those who believe it is a duty to "keep Christ in Christmas" who lament that Santa Claus is part of the problem that we deal with this time of year. On the contrary - the beloved Jolly One in the Red Suit belongs here as he's based on a real-life person who did many things to be light and peace, and comfort and joy to people who really needed it. Doesn't that reflect what Jesus did? Isn't that what we who profess to be Christian are supposed to do? (Okay, maybe taking out those who spread untruths and tearing down pagan temples is a bit beyond where we are. On the other hand, how strong a stand do we take when injustice is blatantly promoted by the high and mighty?)
Just make sure you check your shoes and socks before putting them on later today or tomorrow. There could be a surprise there for you.