St. Nicholas is in fact the greatest saint in the history of Christianity. Forget Peter, Paul, or Mary; St. Nicholas has them all beat. No other saint enjoys his unique relationship to all three branches of Christianity—Orthodox, Roman Catholic, and Protestant—nor his persistent presence in secular culture.
Archbishop Nicholas of Myra and wonder-worker of the late third and early fourth century, has been and continues to be venerated ecumenically by all the various households of the Christian faith. Although rites and customs vary, some begin their remembrance of St. Nicholas as early as December 6 (his feastday on the liturgical calendar) and continue to celebrate him all through the Twelve Days of Christmas until January 5.
The mode or means of veneration can vary as well. The Orthodox and Catholic churches through hymns and litanies ask him to pray for us and recount the miracles attributed to his intercessions or direct intervention. Outside of church in Orthodox and Catholic cultures, children can usually expect gifts to be given in the name of St. Nicholas. It is in this tradition of giving that St. Nicholas persists in Protestant cultures. And it is unmistakably St. Nicholas even in the most dogmatically Protestant of countries (e.g. “Sinter Claas” in 17th century Holland).
This is truly inexplicable in light of the Protestant Reformation. Protestantism forbids not only the veneration of any saints (as either vain superstition or blasphemous idolatry) but the very idea of saints.
But not so with beloved old St. Nick. However bowdlerized into a jolly old elf through a curious and haphazard concatenation of folklore and barbaric invention, he nevertheless does things saints do. He hears our requests, gives gifts to the needy, and he encourages moral living and goodwill in general and generosity in particular. Santa Claus still unmistakably lives up to his name, Saint Nicholas.
One cannot understate the historic magnitude of St. Nick’s triumph. Alone among the saints he has survived the Reformation, the Enlightenment, and Black Friday. Indeed as western culture proceeds down our current post-Protestant course the veneration of St. Nick has even cleared the stiles of secularism and post-modernism. In America, for instance, we have managed to remove any manger, crèche scene, or Christ-child down at the courthouse, but every child can have their picture taken with Santa over at the shopping mall.
Christians are fond of lamenting the state of our secularized culture, especially during the gay Yuletide, and Santa at the mall may seem particularly ill-suited in memory of a true ascetic like the real St. Nicholas. St. Nicholas’ high regard in the eyes of the faithful derives chiefly from his renowned and abundant almsgiving. His love of the poor rightly became the stuff of legend.
The most famous story describes how three daughters, too poor to have a dowry, were each given bags of gold anonymously so that each could marry. But older accounts emphasize the father: A wealthy merchant suddenly loses everything (not unlike the story of Job), then in his misery decides to sell his daughters (very unlike Job). He resorts to sex-trafficking. Nicholas literally redeems the daughters by supplying their dowries. The father is cut to the core at this astounding generosity and repents of his folly. Thus, in addition to being the patron saint of children and the poor, Nicholas becomes the patron saint of prostitutes and merchants as well.
Instead of sacrilegious, the presence of Santa in our malls might better be seen as a benediction where and when we need it most.
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