Page 6, 5th December 1997

5th December 1997
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Page 6, 5th December 1997 — Will the real Santa Claus please stand up?
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Will the real Santa Claus please stand up?

St Nicholas Santa Claus Father Christmas: how did a fourth century Bishop of Myra (in present-day Turkey) become known throughout the Western world as "Father Christmas"? GEOFFREY HUMPHRIES investigates this saint SMALL CHILDREN in Holland are always very excited on 6 December, the feast day of St Nicholas, for they wake up thinking about special hidden gifts. On the evening beforehand, Dutch parents hide gifts for their children in different parts of the house.

In the morning, the family goes to see "St Nicholas" make his ceremonial entry into their city or town, wearing red robes and carrying a golden staff. He is received by the burgomaster, then he rides a white horse, leading a procession through the streets. The highlight for the family after the procession, is returning home to look for the gifts, which children are told were left by St Nicholas during their absence.

Seafaring folk worldwide also join the St Nicholas celebrations on December 6th, for he is the patron saint of sailors. Mediterranean seamen still bid each other farewell with words meaning, "May St Nicholas be at your helm." There are over 400 churches dedicated to him around Britain's coastline.

He is often described as the world's most popular saint, for apart from taking care of sailors, he is the patron saint of bankers, merchants, travellers, scholars and children.

St Nicholas is associated with so many legends stretching to the miraculous that it is difficult to separate fact from fiction. One has it that the saint started to fast while still a baby at his mother's breast, refusing to suckle except on Wednesdays and Fridays.

St Nicholas is the original Father Christmas. Although belief in the red-robed, whitebearded Santa Claus does not last long after early childhood, the image is based on fact.

Born in the fourth century into a wealthy family at Patara, in Lycia, Asia Minor, Nicholas was brought up as a Christian and opposed paganism at every opportunity. He entered a monastery as a young man, became its abbot, then was later appointed Bishop of Myra.

Throughout his life, Nicholas was apparently admired and loved by his fellow Christians. He always had a special regard for the poor, still making time to mix with them after reaching high office. He became widely known for his sufferings during the Roman persecutions until they were ended under Emperor Constantine after which Nicholas was able to extend his ministry over a wider area.

He used the wealth left him by his parents for the benefit of his community, possessing a happy knack of arriving at the right time to help those in need.

HE ORIGIN of the Santa Claus legend concerns a nobleman who fell upon hard times and could not provide dowries for his three daughters.

Hearing of the case, Nicholas passed the house one moonlit night and tossed a bag of gold through an open window. He made a second visit a few nights later. Then, expecting a third visit, the nobleman lay in wait to thank him.

When Nicholas arrived he gave the nobleman a third bag of gold, but urged him not to disclose his benefactor. It is a story that cannot be fully authenticated, but has been universally accepted as typifying the saint's human kindness. The association of St Nicholas with children arose from the inaccuracy of a fourth century engraver. He represented the three bags of gold in a way in which they were mistake for the heads of three little children. This gave rise to a story that Nicholas miraculously revived three children after they had been murdered by the local innkeeper.

St Nicholas is the most remarkable of the miracleworking saints. Even during his lifetime his fame spread throughout Europe. The patron of many vanished kingdoms, he remains one of the two patron saints of Russia, and the Russian Orthodox Church still observes the feast of his Translation, as do the Greeks and Italians.

The remains of St Nicholas, except for a few questionably genuine bones in an Ankara museum, now rest in the crypt of a little waterfront church in Ban, southern Italy.

Behind the sliding doors of a silver altar is the tomb of St Nicholas, in which it is said his bones exude a liquid known as "manna di San Nicola". Several times a year this liquid is collected because of its supposed therapeutic value. There are many stories told of its miraculous curative qualities.

The tomb is at Bari because, when the city ofMyra was occupied by Moslem Saracens in 1087, a group of devout Ban sailors were determined to save the bones of St Nicholas from desecration. They sailed to Myra and, with the help of two priests, Lupo and Grimaldo, discovered four monks guarding the tomb in a lonely hollow.

Opening the tomb they found the bones inside floating in "manna". They carefully encased both bones and liquid in a barrel, then made the perilious journey back to Bari.

Forewarned of their arrival, people thronged the quayside to welcome them, but the sailors refused to hand over the relics to the township until a suitable church had been built in which the bones could be safeguarded. In the meantime, they were housed in a Benedictine abbey close to the old port.

After two years, the crypt of the present church of St Nicholas was completed and consecrated. The church itself was finished in 1108. Since then it has been visited by pilgrims from all over Western Europe, Asia Minor, Balkans and Russia.

In 1156, King William of Sicily completely destroyed Bari. The only place he spared was the church of St Nicholas, which, through a period of nearly 900 years has withstood all the buffets of the city's changing fortunes.

The story of the bags of gold was the origin of the custom in Holland of hiding presents for children. When a large number of Dutch people emigrated to America they kept up the custom. Then, when in America, Christmas became the most important festival in the Christian calendar, the practice of hiding presents was transfered to Christmas Eve.

The Americans commercialised the present-giving idea in the last century and changed the Dutch "Sinterklaas" to Santa Claus. He was introduced to Britain about 150 years ago and we named him Father Christmas.




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