November 25th 2008 9:21 am
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If we should wake on the sixth of December and find our stockings full of candy and toys we should think that the ruddy old fellow who comes down the chimney has lost his wits and arrived about three weeks too soon. But his arrival would seem exactly on time to children in other parts of the world. For the feast of Saint Nicholas is the sixth of December, and how he became the patron saint of the day of the Saint of saints, the Christ – Child, is a story.
It is the story of a story. And when we say that it is true we shall remember that truth lives in the region of dreams. We shall be true to a glorious legend and to the way that legend has come down to us. Truth here consists in knowing that Santa Claus does come down the chimney and fills our stockings. If we do not believe that truth, we are lost souls and beauty and poetry, the only real truth, means nothing.
Nicholas was an actual person. Though he is the most popular saint in the calendar, not excepting St. Christopher and St. Francis, we know little about the man to whom so many lovely deeds, human and miraculous, have been ascribed. He was bishop of Myra, in Lycia, Asia Minor, in the first part of the fourth century of the Christian era. Asia Minor is far away from reindeer and Santa Claus, but the world of faith and fable is small and ideas travel far if they have centuries of time for their journey round the world. And Asia Minor is the cradle of all Christian ideas.
From the day of his birth Nicholas revealed his piety and grace. He refused on fast-days to take the natural nourishment of a child. He was the youngest bishop in the history of the church. He was persecuted and imprisoned with many other Christians during the reign of the Roman emperor Diocletian, and was released and honoured when Constantine the Great established the Christian Church as the official religion, or at least recognised the Christian Church as the official religion, or at least recognised and encouraged it. Under Constantine in 325, was held the first general Council of the Christians at Nicaea, where many important matters were decided. These matters belong to theology and are not in our picture, but Nicholas may have had a hand, as vigorous hand in them. One of the arguers who seemed to Nicholas, and to the later orthodox church, a dangerous heretic so roused th4 righteous ire of the saint that Nicholas smote him in the jaw. This is one of the first episodes in militant Christianity.
About two hundred years after his death Nicholas was a great figure in Christian Legend, and Justinian, the last powerful Roman emperor in the East, built a church in honour of St. Nicholas in Constantinople. But the bones of the saint were not allowed to rest in peace in his home town, Muyra, where he was properly buried. About seven hundred years after his death, in the eleventh century, what remained of the earthly Nicholas was dug up and moved to the city of Bari, in Italy. In its day it was one of many important seaports that dominated Mediterranean traffic. The merchants of Bari organised a predatory expedition to the burial place of Nicholas, stole the bones, reburied them in Bari and built a church which was long an objective for religious pilgrims and is still worth the travel of a lover of art and architecture. The city of Venice, not to be out done by a rival maritime town, also claims to enshrine the bones of the saint.
So the curious tourist may take his choice. The bones are dust, wherever they lie. The churches in Bari and many cities of Europe still stand; there are more than four hundred dedicated to Nicholas in England. More important, the spirit of the saint is alive throughout the Christian world.
Nicholas was not a bare-foot recluse vowed to poverty. His father was a wealthy merchant, and his riches, inherited or created by the magic wand which fairy-godfathers wield, enabled him to be a dispenser of good things of life, an earthly representative of the Supreme Giver of gifts.
The most famous episode in his long career of benevolence is his rescue of the three dowerless maidens. An impoverished nobleman had three daughters who he was about to send into a life of shame. Nicholas heard of the tragic situation and at night threw a purse of gold into the house. This furnished the dowry for the eldest daughter, and she was married.
After a little while, says the Golden Legend, which is the great medieval story of the saints, his holy hermit of God ‘threw in another mass of gold’ and that provided a dowry for the second daughter. ‘And after a few days Nicholas doubled the mass of gold and cast it into the house’. So the third daughter was endowed. The happy father, wishing to know his benefactor, ran after Nicholas and recognised him, but the holy man ‘required him not to tell nor discover this thing as long as he lived’.
Thus Nicholas became not only the generous giver but the special patron saint of maidenhood and was so known and celebrated throughout the Middle Ages. Danté speaks in three short lines, as if he assumed that everybody already knew the story, of the generosity of Nicholas to maidens, ‘to lead their youth to honour’. The Italian painters made much of this story. A fine pictorial representation of it is the Metropolitan Art Museum in New York City. It is one of those dramatic paintings in which the old artists told a really moving tale long before the days of the camera and the moving picture. Inside the house you see the three distressed daughters and the still more dejected and ragged father. Outside is Nicholas climbing up at the door in the act of throwing the purse through a little window.
The story takes what seems an almost humorous turn. Let us imagine three purses of ‘masses’ of gold. We recognise them, in conventional form, in the three gold balls over the pawnbroker’s shop. Thus the holy man of the early Christian Church presides symbolically over a business which throughout Europe during the Middle Ages was conducted largely though not exclusively by members of the older Jewish Church. Pawnbroking included all forms of banking and money-lending with personal movable property as security. At first glance it does not seem quite appropriate that the charitable benevolent saint should become associated with a business, long notorious for exaction and usury, which the Mosaic Law forbade and which the derivative Christian morality condemned. One of the earliest acts of Christ was the expulsion of money-lenders from the temple: he ‘overthrew the tables of the money changers’ and scourged forth others who bought and sold.
But it may well be that the bankers and brokers wished to give sanctity and dignity to their business and so adopted the generous Nicholas as their heavenly protector. Every profession, guild, trade or, more likely, there was not much deliberate choice, these assimilations of legend to fact simply happened, nobody knows just how. Nicholas was adopted not only by the more or less respectable brokers but by thieves and pirates. The sinner as well as the honest man had his heavenly benefactor. And it is no more strange in the history of mythology that Nicholas should have been invoked by thieves than that the Greek Roman God Mercury should have been the tutelary deity of robbers and tricksters.
Nicholas was the patron of all who went down to the sea in ships, whether bound on a predatory cruise or a military expedition or an errand of peaceful trade. The distinctions were not always clear in fact or theory. There are many stories of his having rescued sailors from shipwreck. It is written in the Roman Breviary, which is the ‘official account’, that ‘in his youth on a sea voyage he saved the ship from a fearful storm’. Greek and Russian sailors appeal to him for protection and carry in the cabin of ships an image of the saint with a perpetually burning lamp. It is in accordance with the spirit of Christianity and other religions that a drowning man needs help, no matter what the moral purpose of his voyage through life may have been up to the hour of disaster.
Nicholas, however, was a dispenser of justice, according to the ideas of justice that prevailed when the stories about him grew up and took shape. One curious story of his judgment as patron of money-lending and trade reveals the attitude of those who made the story; it shows the somewhat confused relations between Jew and Gentile, relations familiarised for us by the story of Shylock. The tale is told in the Golden Legend, translated by Caxton, the father of English printing and a tireless interpreter of foreign books into our English tongue. I change a little Caxton’s words, which are not quite modern in form and construction:
‘There was a man who had borrowed of a Jew a sum of money and swore upon the altar of St. Nicholas that he would pay it back, as soon as he could, and gave no other pledge, The man kept the money so long that the Jew demanded payment. And the man said that he had paid. Then the Jew summoned the debtor into court. The debtor brought a hollow staff to the Jew to hold. Then he swore that he had given the Jew more than he owed and asked the J4ew to give him back the staff. The Jew, not suspecting the trickery, gave the staff back to the debtor who took it and went away. Sleep overcame him and he lay down in the road. A cart ran over him and killed him and broke the staff so that the gold rolled out. When the Jew heard this he came and saw the fraud. Many people said to him that he should take the gold. But he refused saying that if the dead man were brought to life again by the power of St. Nicholas, he would take the money and become a Christian. So the dead man arose, and the Jew was Christened’.
Thus the ends of justice were served and everybody was happy.
The most important role of Nicholas to us at the present time is his patronage of schoolboys, for this brings him close to us as Santa Claus, the bearer of gifts and the special saint of childhood. He was himself the Boy Bishop. A famous story of him is that of his bringing to life three boys. On their way home, the tale runs, the boys stopped at a farmhouse. The farmer and his wife murdered them, cut their bodies in pieces and put them into casks used for pickling meat. St. Nicholas arrived, charged the murderers with their crime and caused the boys to rise from the casks fully restored. That is one reason, so far as there are many reason in fable, why schoolboys celebrated the feast of St. Nicholas on December sixth.
Intimately connected with the feast of Nicholas was the custom of electing a Boy Bishop for a limited number of days extending just over Christmas. To get something of the spirit of the ceremony and celebration we have only to think of a modern game played in New York and other American cities in which a boy is elected mayor for a day with a full staff of subordinate juvenile officials. The motive of the modern custom is to teach youths civic virtue, public service and patriotism. The motive underlying the Boy Bishop was partly religious, partly childish love of pranks and parody, and partly a sort of democratic rebellion, tolerated for a short period each year against constituted authority.
The Boy Bishop was dressed in handsome robes like a real bishop, and he and his companions led a mock solemn parade and in some cities actually took possession of the churches. There was much feasting, the way to a boys heart being through his stomach as well as through gaudy garments; and there was on the part of elder participants a good deal of drinking. On the whole it was a charming and innocent affair. The boys took it seriously enough, especially the supper which concluded the performance. As early as the first part of the tenth century Conrad I, King of Germany, described a visit to a monastery when the revels were at their height. He was amused especially by the procession of the children, so grave and sedate that even Conrad ordered his followers to throw apples down the aisle, the Children did not lose their gravity.
But these high jinks too near to sacred things met with opposition and censure. Ecclesiastical and civil authority shut down on the Boy Bishops and parades and ceremonies in one country after another. Grown people are not always profoundly wise about either the fooling or the intense seriousness of children. The Roman Catholic Church in the middle of the fifteenth century tried to suppress by edict the Boy Bishop and all the customs relating to him. In England, where this childish festival prevailed not only in the cathedral cities but in the small towns, the Protestant Reformation applied a depressing hand, and Queen Elizabeth, whose own court was gay with revelries, masques, interludes, finally abolished the Boy Bishop.
Childhood, however, has its revenges upon the interfering adult. With the aid of the conniving adult who refuses to grow up, Nicholas remained the saint of children. In some countries his festival was taken over, assimilated to Christmas, partly because St. Nicholas Day is so near to Christmas and partly because in some parts of the world there arose a sort of Protestant hostility to the worship of saints. But custom and amusement prevail even when religion and history are forgotten and ignored. To cite another example as familiar as Christmas, on the evening of the last day of October children bob apples, make pumpkin jack-o’-lantern, and play all kinds of tricks to pester innocent neighbours. They call the occasion Halloween, but few of them or their neighbours know that "hallow" means saint, and that the first of November is All Saints’ Day.
So it is with Nicholas. He is honoured and accepted with a kind of childish ignorance. Professor George H. McKnight of Ohio State University, who has given us the best account in English of the good St. Nicholas, begins his book by saying that strangely little is known of him in America. But he belongs to us by a very special inheritance. Our Dutch ancestors in New York – ancestry is a matter of tradition, not of blood – brought St. Nicholas over to New Amsterdam. The English colonists borrowed him from their Dutch neighbours. The Dutch form is San Nicolaas. If we say that rather fast with a stress on the broad double – A of the last syllable, a D or a T slips in after the N and we get ‘Sandyclaus’ or ‘Santa Claus’. And our American children are probably the only ones in the world who say it just that way; indeed the learned, and very British, Encyclopedia Britannica calls our familiar form ‘an American corruption’ of the Dutch. I suspect, however, that we should hear something very like it from the lips of children in Holland and Germany; in parts of southern Germany the word in sound, and I think spelling, is ‘santiklos’.
However, that may be, America owes the cheery saint of Christmas to Holland and Germany. In Belgium and Holland the festival of the saint is still observed on his birthday, December sixth, and the jollities and excitements are much the same as those we enjoy at Christmas, with some charming local variations. Saint Nicholas is not the merry fellow with a chubby face and twinkling eye, but retains the gravity appropriate to a venerable bishop. He rides a horse or an ass instead of driving a team or reindeer. He leaves his gifts in stockings, shoes or baskets. And for children who have been very naughty, and whose parents cannot give him a good account of them, he leaves a rod by way of admonition, for he is a highly moral saint, though kind and forgiving. If the parents are too poor to buy gifts, the children say ruefully that the saint’s horse has glass legs and has fallen down and broken his foot. The horse or ass of St. Nicholas is not forgotten; the children leave a wisp of hay for him, and in the morning it is gone.
As with us, the older people have their own festivities, suppers, exchange of gifts, surprises. But also as with our Christmas; the feast of Nicholas is primarily a day for Children.
Where did Santa Claus get his reindeer? And how did the grave saint become that gnome-like fat fellow, with nothing ecclesiastic about him, so vividly described in Clement Moore’s famous poem, "Twas the night before Christmas?" The answers to these questions are only provisional, matters of conjecture.
Notice that in Moore’s poem, the form Santa Claus does not appear. The title of the poem is ‘A visit from St. Nicholas’, and in the verses the visitor is St. Nicholas and ‘Saint Nick’. The verses were written in the first half of the last century. The author was a distinguished biblical scholar and professor in the General Theological Seminary in New York. In these verses he was writing not as a scholar but as a jolly human being, the father of a family taking a day off from serious studies. His verses must represent the idea of Santa Claus that prevailed in his time, and long before his time in New York and far outside New York for they spread all over the country, are still reprinted every year.
Now in this delightful jingling poem there is not a touch of religion. The ‘jolly old elf’ has not the slightest resemblance to a reverend saint. And there is no suggestion, except in the word Christmas, of any connection in thought or spirit with what is, excepting possibly Easter, the most sacred day in the whole Christian year. And similarly we may observe in our time many a Christmas party run its course without any participants giving a thought to a birth in a manager from which our year is dated. So Santa Claus is strangely different from his pious namesake and also in some places and among some people estranged from the very religious occasion to which he is attached.
But in some parts in America where the people are of Dutch or German descent there is a charming alliance between Santa Claus and the Christ Child. It came about in this way. Some parts of Germany after the feast of St. Nicholas had been moved forward and identified with Christmas it was felt that the real patron of the day, the true giver of gifts, should be Christ himself. This feeling probably arose from the Protestant objection to the worship of saints. So St. Nicholas was deposed from power; gradually, not by any sudden revolution, he disappeared in some places, from the customs long associated with him. But the customs remained. On Christmas Eve there were gifts of sweets and toys for good children. Or they put bowls in the window, and behold, in the morning they found that the window pane has been taken out during the night and gifts laid in the bowls.
The bringer of these gifts was not St. Nicholas but the Christ Child, in popular German, Kris Kringle. But among the German people in America, the legend of Santa Claus still survived, and so Kris Kringle is a combination of Santa Claus and the Christ Child.
This combination gives us an inkling of what happened in the whole story of Christmas from earliest times, Santa Claus, the merry elf, is not Christian at all, but pagan, coming down from times earlier than the Christian era or at least earlier than the times when the Tuetonic people were Christianized. He belongs to popular fairyland, the land of elves, gnomes, spirits, hobgoblins. In countless fairy tales there are good spirits and evil spirits. The evil spirits haunt the woods and molest innocent people. The good spirits aid the poor, bring gifts in the night, rescue princess’ in distress and so on.
These stories are not originally of Christian origin. They may not be definitely part of any of the religion which Christianity supplanted. Associated with them are popular festivals and ceremonies. It may well be that the apples in our Christmas stockings are the descendants of apples that grew on very old trees, trees older than history, perhaps there was a late harvest festival, or a kind of pagan Thanksgiving, presided over by a beneficent elf, and accompanied by candling and feasting. We do not know.
But we do know that as Christianity developed, the Church encouraged all the popular customs, or many of them, took them over and associated them with Christian holidays. This may have been a deliberate attempt of the priests to win the favour of the people and make the new religion really popular, or the people may have made the transfer themselves by the vague and untraceable but very real process of folk-poetry.
Now where did Santa Claus get his reindeer? There are no reindeer in Germany and probably never were, certainly not the kind that are broken to harness like horses. And oddly enough the reindeer does not appear in any of the surviving Christmas legends and customs in old Germany. The reindeer first paws the roof of American houses. But of course, he cannot be an American animal.
The explanation, one explanation, is this:
There are reindeer in northern Scandinavia where they have been domesticated from time immemorial. Scandinavian and German legends and mythology are closely related. The old German gods come from the north and many German folk-tales are of Scandinavian origin. The reindeer of our Santa Claus certainly came from Lapland, and Santa is an arctic explorer, exploring the other way: Dr. Moore, with true poetic imagination, describes him as "dressed all in fur, from his head to his foot" not in the red flannel with which we are accustomed to clothe him. Among the Germans or Dutch who came to this country there must have been a legend of a Scandinavian Santa, and in German the reindeer inexplicably got lost. Perhaps their bones will be found in a German forest by one of the literary archaelogists who dig into such matters. But no, the bones will never be found, for the reindeer are still alive and fly over the house-tops.
The career of Santa Claus through the ages is as mysterious as his annual flight. One might suppose that he would have gone directly from Germany or Holland to their near neighbour England, as the Christmas tree was transplanted to England after the shortest possible journey. But there is every likelihood that Santa Claus, having become a good American colonist, recrossed the Atlantic in an English Ship – or perhaps as the first transatlantic flyer. He has long been a well established figure in he Christmas customs and not only of the mother counry but in all parts of the British Empire. The allegiance of English Children, however, is divided. Some believe that Santa Claus brings them their presents. Others believe in Father Christmas, a more recent creation, whom English artists represent as an old gentleman in what seems to be a sort of eighteenth century costume with gaitered legs, a tail coat, and a squarish beaver hat.
It is rather strange that English Christmas customs are not more closely imitated by Americans. We know nothing of the yulelog, even in houses that have open fireplaces. Perhaps the reason that we borrowed little from the English Christmas is that the English who came to America, especially in New England, were not the merry-making kind; they would have abhorred the idea of making Christmas an occasion for mirth and happiness. They would have groaned at one pretty custom, which is inherited directly from England and which their less godly descendants indulge in on Beacon Hill in Boston – the singing of carols in the streets on Christmas Eve. In all New England literature of the classical period there is scarcely a reference in prose or verse to Christmas, and that was the time when Dickens and Thackeray and other English writers, eagerly read in America, were giving the holiday new spirit and brightness in England.
Customs differ in different countries. A Russian coming from the country of which Nicholas is the chief saint would not at first sight understand our Santa Claus. He would see no relation between his saint before whose icon he bows and the figure in a red suit with a long white beard standing in front of a department store and doing his bit to keep a spirit of good cheer in the enormous American institution – Christmas trade. An American tourist brought up as Protestant finding himself in an Italian city would look up in his guide-book an ornate Italian painting of St. Nicholas miraculously answering a prayer for help, and that tourist unless he had historical imagination might not realise the connection between the beautiful painting the angel on his last Christmas tree at home and the letter that he wrote as a boy asking Santa Claus to bring him a new sled.
Yet these connections do exist, and they are very important, for they are bonds that hold the world together and help to give its disparate parts and antagonistic faiths a human unification. No other saint and few other men embrance such a wide variety of benevolent ideas as St. Nicholas, with such duration in time and such extent throughout the Christian world. And he is probably the only serious figure in religious history in any way association with humour, with the spirit of fun. For he is the patron of giving. And it is fun to give.