By Serpil Kadirlar
Christmas… That time of year where TV advertisements bombard us with gift ideas, images of generosity and family. Christmas songs which fill us with the warm, fuzzy feeling reminds us that “that” time has well and truly arrived…
We prepare ourselves with limitless hours of shopping- even the most sensible among us will give the trusty “emergency” credit card a thrashing while those who have sworn that they cannot cook anything beyond a fried egg suddenly prepare a Christmas meal worthy of a Michelin-star, A La Carte menu.
Christmas day is a celebration to mark the birth of Jesus- who is of great importance in both Christianity and Islam. Christians believe that Jesus was the son of God, Muslims consider Jesus (or Isa) as one of the most important prophets of God and in fact, is mentioned more frequently in the Quran than the Prophet Muhammed, while the Holy Mother Mary has an entire chapter of the Quran dedicated to her.
However, in the true fashion of marketing, emphasis is placed on significant figures such as Santa Claus in order to boost sales and many of us don’t know why so much focus is placed upon Santa rather than Jesus, or indeed, the relevance of Santa and Christmas.
Santa Claus- or St Nicholas- is not the chubby guy with the red suit as we know today. In fact, the image we associate with Santa today was initially created in 1863 by Thomas Nast, an American caricaturist and editorial cartoonist, who drew a slightly slimmer Santa (one who could fit down chimney’s and through partially open windows). He wore a red suit with a black belt and fur lining. The image was then re-drawn by Haddon Sundblom- an American artist of Finnish and Swedish descent, who created the large, jolly Santa image for a Coca-Cola marketing campaign in 1931. This image and indeed the culture surrounding Santa Claus at Christmas has become central to the season.
But what about St Nicholas? Who was he? What happened to him? And how did he become such a revered saint?
Nicholas was born in modern day Gelemiş, a province of Antalya in Turkey. Although very little evidence remains from his lifetime, records which date to around 2 centuries after his death suggests that he was born to a wealthy mother and father. According to some literature attributed to the Canaanites, they said that “He was exceedingly well brought up by his parents and trod piously in their footsteps. The child, watched over by the church enlightened his mind and encouraged his thirst for sincere and true religion”
Nicholas’ parents died when he was a young man, leaving him well off and he determined to devote his inheritance to works of charity. An opportunity soon arose. A citizen of Patara (close to Gelemiş) who had three young daughters to support, had lost all of his money. The desperate father could not find husbands for his daughters as he could offer no dowry because of their poverty. A villain had begun prowling around the poor family with the intention to force the young women into prostitution. News of this situation reached the ears of Nicholas.
In the dark hours of the night, Nicholas went to the home of the unfortunate family and threw a bag of gold through the family window which had been left ajar. The father now had a dowry for his eldest daughter and soon found her a suitable husband. Nicholas did this secret deed two more times. The final time, the father kept watch throughout the night and finally learnt who his benefactor was. Overwhelmed with gratitude, the father was said to have fell to his knees -Nicholas ordered that his deeds be kept secret. Eventually, all three of the girls were married and in secure households. It is said that Nicholas continued this kind and secret deed for countless poor and desperate households, and this gave rise to his patronage of children
Nicholas was said to have performed miracles. A legend written 250 years after his death states that Nicholas resurrected three children killed by an innkeeper who had pickled the children in brine with the intention to sell their flesh as pork.
Another legend states that during his journey to visit the Holy Land (Palestine) the ship he was on was nearly destroyed by a terrible storm, but he rebuked the waves, causing the storm to subside. Because of this miracle, Nicholas became venerated as the patron saint of sailors.
After visiting the Holy Land, Nicholas returned to Myra (Antalya). The bishop of Myra, who had succeeded Nicholas’s uncle, had recently died and the priests in the city had decided that the first priest to enter the church that morning would be made bishop. Nicholas went to the church to pray and was therefore proclaimed the new bishop.
He is said to have been imprisoned and tortured during the Great Persecution under the Roman Emperor Diocletian but was released under the orders of the Emperor Constantine.
One of the earliest attested stories of Saint Nicholas is one in which he saves three innocent men from execution. According to Michael the Archimandrite, three innocent men were condemned to death by the governor Eustathius. As they were about to be executed, Nicholas appeared, pushed the executioner’s sword to the ground, released them from their chains, and angrily chastised a juror who had accepted a bribe. According to Dutch historian Jona Lendering, this story directly parallels an earlier story in Philostratus’s Life of Apollonius of Tyana, in which Apollonius prevents the execution of a man falsely condemned of banditry. Michael the Archimandrite also tells another story in which the consul Ablabius accepted a bribe to put three famous generals to death, in spite of their actual innocence. Saint Nicholas appeared to Constantine and Ablabius in dreams, informing Constantine of the truth and frightening Ablabius into releasing the generals, for fear of Hell.
Saint Nicholas died close to his place of birth and was buried in his Episcopal city of Myra (Demre, Antalya), and by the era of Justinian (Eastern Roman emperor from 527 to 565) there was a basilica built in his honor at what is now Istanbul. An anonymous centuries old document found with details describing Saint Nicholas wrote;
“the West as well as the East acclaims and glorifies him. Wherever there are people, in the country and the town, in the villages, in the isles, in the furthest parts of the earth, his name is revered and churches are built in his honor. Images of him are set up, panegyrics preached and festivals celebrated. All Christians, young and old, men and women, boys and girls, reverence his memory and call upon his protection. And his favours, which know no limit of time and continue from age to age, are poured out over all the earth; the Scythians know them, as do the Indians and the Turks, the Africans as well as the Italians.”
After the death of Saint Nicholas, when the Antalya Province was taken by the Turkish Selchuks, several Italian cities saw this as an opportunity to acquire the relics of Saint Nicholas for themselves. There was great competition for them between Venice and Bari. The last-named won, the relics were carried off under the noses of the lawful Byzantine custodians and their Mohammedan masters, and on May 9, 1087 were safety landed at Bari, desecrating the original tomb in Myra in the process. Adam C English, Chair of the department of Christian studies at Campbell University describes the incident as “Holy Robbery”.
The removal of Saint Nicholas’s relics from Myra and their arrival in Bari is reliably recorded by multiple chroniclers, including Orderic Vitalis, an English chronicler and Benedictine monk who wrote one of the great contemporary chronicles of 11th- and 12th-century Normandy and Anglo-Norman England. Modern historians view him as a reliable source.
Thus, we can safely conclude that Saint Nicholas was a man of courage, piousness, great yet humble generosity and one who sought to protect families and fellow townsmen and women from unjust persecution.
In light of this, it is with even more joy that we welcome the image of Santa Claus into our homes once a year- however, it is well worth remembering the struggles behind the people we purport to celebrate.