Thursday, December 06, 2007

Notes on the Feast of St. Nicholas of Myra.

Today the Church remembers St. Nicholas the Wonderworker, fourth-century bishop of Myra in Lycia, whose example of Christian charity and generous service to all in need provide the historical basis for the benevolent figure of Santa Claus. The historical Nicholas of Myra was, it must be noted, very different from the modern Santa Claus. Saint Nick did not preside over a toy factory at the North Pole, but instead led the Church in a part of Greek-speaking Anatolia that today falls within the borders of Turkey. As a bishop, Nicholas is widely believed to have attended the Council of Nicaea in 325, which was called to confront the Arian heresy. Arius appeared at the Council to defend his views, and the Bishop of Myra reputedly became so upset with what Arius said that he struck the heresiarch in the face. (I enjoy repeating this story, both because it offers a view of St. Nicholas that differs from the norm and because it gives me a rare opportunity to use the word "heresiarch.")

Many stories have been told about the great generosity that St. Nicholas of Myra showed toward all in need, particularly the poor, children, and people in captivity. The website of the St. Nicholas Center includes a page retelling some of these stories, and reading them it's easy to see how the good bishop became a popular saint in both the Eastern and Western Churches. Over the centuries, devotion to St. Nicholas has taken on many forms. In the eleventh century, a group of Italian sailors took St. Nicholas' relics from Myra - over the strenuous objection of the locals - to the Italian port city of Bari. The saint's relics may now be found at the Basilica Pontificia San Nicola, which remains an important place of pilgrimage for devotees from the East as well as the West. The Palestinian city of Beit Jala holds an annual festival honoring St. Nicholas on his feast day, recalling a pilgrimage that the saint made to the Holy Land as a young man. Many parts of Europe once observed the tradition, still followed in England, of selecting boy bishops from among the cathedral choristers on St. Nicholas' Day; these purely honorary prelates would typically hold office until the Feast of the Holy Innocents on December 28th.

Under the name of Sinterklaas, St. Nicholas plays a particularly important role in holiday celebrations in the Netherlands. The Dutch custom is to exchange gifts not on Christmas but on the eve of St. Nicholas' Day, and the weeks leading up to December 5th are celebrated with great festivity. Sinterklaas' official arrival in Amsterdam is apparently a very big deal, as one can tell not simply from the official website of the event but from the eyewitness testimony of my sister Elizabeth, who saw it all herself. For myself, I can say that St. Nicholas' Day was a special event at my novitiate: on the morning of the feast day, each novice found a pair of stockings and a bag of candy at his door. I presumed this to be a custom unique to Loyola House, but Jesuits here who were novices elsewhere reported similar experiences. We don't follow the same custom at Ciszek Hall, but we will be having our community celebration of Christmas tonight. My prayers and best wishes go out to all readers, regardless of how you do (or do not) celebrate the memory of St. Nicholas of Myra today. AMDG.


At 12/07/2007 2:59 PM, Blogger Jason said...


Have you read David Sedaris's take on the Sinterklaas and Zwarte Piet tradition?

At 12/08/2007 11:01 AM, Blogger Joseph Koczera, S.J. said...


I haven't read it, but I'll take a look - thanks for the link.

At 12/16/2007 3:36 PM, Blogger Lisa said...

Joe, what a great icon of St. Nicholas! I grew up in St. Nicholas' parish so this is special to me. Thanks for posting it.

Blessings and grace during these remaining days of Advent!


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