The patron of a cheerful and expectant season: The bishop with a heart of gold | Sunday Observer

The patron of a cheerful and expectant season: The bishop with a heart of gold

Walking along the passageways of a department store two days back, I couldn’t help overhearing a discussion between a young mother and her (maybe) 2-year old child. “Amma, is that Santa Claus? The child asked.

“Yes darling, he is Santa Claus,” Mother replied.

How right she was! During Christmastime, with solemn faces, we tell our youngsters once again, “Yes, there is a Santa Claus.” The burly, red-coated, cotton-bearded gift-bringer who silently visits Christian families reflects the glorious figure of an ancient saint - Nicholas, Bishop of Myra (the modern Demre in Turkey). It’s a strange story, and the mystery begins at the beginning, for even during his life, the saint’s remarkable generosity made him a legend. In the 16 centuries that have elapsed since his death, tradition has fleshed out his dim contours, leaving us with a blend of fact and fiction.

Generous heart

This saint in his day was but a minor guiding light of the Christian Church. Today, he has become one of its brightest stars. Thousands of churches throughout Christendom are dedicated in his name. Coins and postage stamps bear his image. Paintings by the world’s masters immortalize his miracles.

Mariners facing shipwreck pray to him, and a dozen and more stories tell of his appearance before some storm - tossed crew. Nicholas is said to have the power of bringing a drowned sailor back to life, and Mediterranean fishing crews often carry his picture with them, to be paraded around the deck.

The link between St. Nicholas and the sea derives from a historic fact. Myra was a bustling seaside town on the south coast of Asia Minor (now Turkey). To visit fishing hamlets in his salt-splashed diocese, Nicholas had to travel by boat.

He stood before the mast, blessing the faithful who hailed him from the beach or from a passing vessel. This must have been a familiar sight to people and mariners.

The son of well-to-do Christian parents, Nicholas was born about the year 270 in Cappadocia (in modern Turkey). Because of his great piety, the boy was destined for priesthood. He was well-educated, studying Greek Philosophy along with the Christian doctrine. Myra, where he was consecrated bishop, was a short day’s journey from his birthplace.

These are the only facts we have. Some believe, Nicholas was persecuted and imprisoned for his faith under the Roman Emperor Diocletian. There is also belief that during the reign of Constantine he attended the Church’s first Ecumenical Council, in Nicaea.

But, what we do know is that he possessed a remarkably kind heart. One of the most famous stories about him concerns a neighbour, who, unable to support his three pretty daughters, or provide a dowry so that they could find husbands, feared that they might have to become prostitutes.

Nicholas stole up to the house one night and dropped a fistful of gold coins through the window.

They made a handsome dowry, and the delighted father married off the eldest girl. Nicholas came a second time, and the second daughter found a husband. The third time, the neighbour lay in wait for his arrival and, recognizing Nicholas, fell to his knees and thanked him. But Nicholas held a finger to his lips and pledged the man into silence. This celebrated episode, told and retold throughout the centuries, has been the inspiration for many paintings.

Nicholas died about the year 340 and was buried with great honours. But people in distress continued to invoke him, and his fame as a miracle-worker spread north through the west into Europe. Mariners carried it from port to port, bargemen took it upriver, hawkers spread along the highways. Soon, all men on the move claimed Nicholas’s protection.

Relics

Seven centuries after his death, the town of Myra fell to Muslim armies. Feelings ran high, especially, in Italy, whose sailing crews had often prayed at Nicholas’s tomb in Myra.

And so, in the year 1087, some 50 determined sailors from a south Italian port, set sail in three merchant ships, landed at Myra and marched up boldly to the sanctuary. They over-powered the guardians and opened up the stone lid of the tomb and made off with the sacred bones. Triumphantly they sailed into their home port, where the people received them with delirious joy.

The Basilica of St. Nicholas in Bari, the capital city of the Apulia region in Italy, still ranks with Christendom’s most glorious structures because of the presence of the Saint’s relics.

Year after year, pilgrims have filled its mighty nave. Crusaders prayed there before embarking for the Holy Land.

The flow of visitors reaches its peak in May when a medieval pageant culminates in the transfer of Saint Nicholas’s large wooden statue, dressed in jewelled robes, to the deck of a fishing craft. The crowds line the waterfront and decorated boats follow the gently bobbing saint as he travels around the bay.

Christmas connection

How did this people’s saint in priestly garb become identified with Christmas as a symbolic idol? The Protestant Reformation Church frowned on the cult of saints, but Nicholas had become too deeply rooted an institution to wither away.

His feast day, celebrated on December 1 (the day on which he was believed to have died) gradually turned into a young folk’s festival.

No one can say when the first “Saint Nicholas” walked at midnight into the living rooms of Christian homes tossing gifts to the children.

But in the Germanic north of Europe, where memories of pagan deities lingered deep below the Christian beliefs, the bishop’s robe became a long red winter coat, the mitre turned into a fur cap. In many parts of the old world, St. Nicholas’ Day and Christmas blended into a single treat, and the old man of Myra marched on as the jolly patron of a cheerful and expectant season.

The Scandinavians contributed their reindeer - and there he was, ready to make his calls. Maybe, it was the way it should be, giving a new face to the kindly old gentleman with the same old heart of gold. 

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