Monday, December 03, 2007

Church celebrates the 'real' St. Nicholas

The Rev. Nick Kasemeotes of Holy Anargyroi Greek Orthodox Church tells a bit of the history of St. Nicholas.Ken Klotzbach/Post-Bulletin
12/1/2007 6:24:52 AM
by Jeffrey Jackson

Post-Bulletin, Rochester MN
As Father Nicholas Kasemeotes gestured toward the iconography on the sanctuary wall of Holy Anargyroi Greek Orthodox Church, a slight smile crossed his face when he came to the image of a bearded old man in a robe.

"This is St. Nicholas," he said.
Except for the white whiskers, there is little in the image that would make one associate this 4th century bishop with his contemporary incarnation as ol' St. Nick -- or Santa Claus. Unlike the plump, jolly old elf, the saint's figure is lean, almost gaunt. Instead of a red suit and red stocking cap, he is clothed in liturgical vestments, complete with a mitre on his head. And in his hands, he carries not a bag of toys, but the scriptures.

"He was a very powerful figure in the life of the church," Kasemeotes said.
Indeed, as tradition has it -- though some church historians dispute it -- Nicholas, the bishop of Myra in Lycia, was present at the first ecumenical council, the Council of Nicea, called by Emperor Constantine in 325. Nicholas remains one of the most popular of all saints, and both the Eastern and Western traditions of Christendom still honor him. His Feast Day is still celebrated on Dec. 6.

But for Father Kasemeotes, St. Nicholas holds a special place.
"When you are baptized, you are given the name of a saint," he said, noting that he shares the same first name as Nicholas. The sharing of the name of a saint is important in the Orthodox tradition, meaning that a person shares a special relationship with or affinity to that saint. So important is that saint to the person, that the saint's Feast Day becomes a person's Name Day -- an occasion that is celebrated more than one's own birthday. Father Kasemeotes will celebrate his Name Day on Thursday, the Feast of St. Nicholas.

"The celebration of the Name Day is more important," he said, "because it marks our baptism, the day of our rebirth. We say that the first birth ends in death, but the rebirth ends in life."
Because of his connection with St. Nicholas, Kasemeotes bemoans the way the bishop's story has devolved over the years into the popular image of Santa Claus. Yet, he understands how the legends surrounding the saint have changed in the ways they have.

One popular story surrounding Nicholas tells of how a poor man, living in Lycia, who had three daughters and who did not have the money to provide dowries for the daughters. At that time, Kasemeotes said, if a man could not provide dowries for his daughters, he might sell off those daughters into slavery, even into prostitution. In order to protect the girls, Nicholas, or so the legend goes, visited their home on three separate nights and threw bags of gold through the window. Some legends say he threw the gold down the chimney. Others say the gold landed in the stockings or the shoes of the girls.
From those stories and others like it, Kasemeotes said, came the image of St. Nicholas as the protector of children and the bringer of gifts.

Although some Christian traditions celebrate St. Nicholas Day with the giving of gifts, Kasemeotes said that such gift-giving is not typical within the Greek Orthodox tradition. Instead, those within his congregation will celebrate as they do with other saints days -- by calling upon the saint to intercede for them and singing hymns to St. Nicholas.
The prayer for St. Nicholas Day is simple: "As rule of faith and picture of gentleness, and teacher of temperance, you were shown to your flock, by the truth of evidence; thus you achieved the lofty through humility, the abundant through poverty. O Father and Hierarch Nicholas, intercede with Christ our God, that our souls may be saved."

The Americanization of St. Nicholas

On Dec. 6, 1809, Washington Irving published the satirical fiction "The Knickerbocker's History of New York," with numerous references to a jolly St. Nicholas character. This was not a saintly bishop, rather an elfin Dutch burgher with a clay pipe.
The New York Historical Society held its first St. Nicholas anniversary dinner on Dec. 6, 1810. John Pintard commissioned artist Alexander Anderson to create the first American image of Nicholas for the occasion. Nicholas was shown in a gift-giving role with children's treats in stockings hanging at a fireplace.

The jolly elf image received a big boost in 1823, from a poem destined to become immensely popular, "A Visit from St. Nicholas," now better known as "The Night Before Christmas."
In 1863, political cartoonist Thomas Nast began a series of annual black-and-white drawings in Harper's Weekly, based on the descriptions found in the poem and Washington Irving's work. These drawings established a rotund Santa with a flowing beard, fur garments, and an omnipresent clay pipe. As Nast drew Santas until 1886, his work had considerable influence in forming the American Santa Claus. Along with appearance changes, the saint's name shifted to Santa Claus -- a natural phonetic alteration from the German Sankt Niklaus and Dutch Sinterklaas.

Source: The Saint Nicholas Center

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