Moving beyond the North Pole

Most of my friends recall the moment they figured out that Santa Claus wasn't real. They would joke about the psychological harm the revelation had on their fragile 8-year-old psyches. I never experienced this because for some odd reason my wonderful parents never taught me about him. This matters not at all to me but apparently harmed my mother who now has made up for lost time with a bit of a Santa obsession. Her conception of the jolly old man is based on the Clement Moore version, of course. My Santa revelation experience occurred later in life when I found out he was real -- and important. The Dutch called him Sinterklass, which we Americans morphed into Santa Claus. But the man behind the legend is St. Nicholas, fourth century Bishop of Myra. Born into great wealth, he served God by giving away his inherited fortune and became renowned for his generosity to the poor and needy.

The most famous of many stories told about him is how he saved three girls from a life of prostitution by tossing dowry money through their windows so they could get married. Yet for a man about whom so little is verified, his legend crossed all over the world. Much of Europe (he is Greece's patron saint) celebrates his feast day today; German children put out their shoes last night and woke to find them filled with candy and toys this morning. (The Orthodox do this too.)

Celebrations also occur today throughout the United States. St. Nicholas is one of the few saints to be recognized and popular in both Eastern and Western Christianity. It's not uncommon to find Roman Catholic, Orthodox, Lutheran or Episcopalian churches named in his honor.

Rather than mapping their seasonal coverage directly onto the retail calendar, complete with the glowing profiles of the Sacred Santa ensconced in his Bishop's seat at the local sanctuary mall, reporters might do well to look at how locals are marking St. Nicholas' day. Some reporters already managed this in Wisconsin, Pennsylvania, Texas and Washington.

David Crumm, the Detroit Free Press religion writer, had a great local angle on the story with his profile of a woman who promotes the celebration of St. Nicholas.

Since the Web site was launched in 2002, Carol Myers' nonprofit promotion of St. Nicholas has become her year-round job. Every day, she adds to the vast collection of educational materials, history and festive holiday ideas at www.stnicholascenter.org, because she is convinced there's a growing interest in the religious traditions of Christmas. She argues that there's far more to this season than the elves, red-nosed reindeer and talking snowmen that often overshadow the faith.

Myers' biggest effort is promoting St. Nicholas' feast day on Tuesday, when millions of Christians celebrate the 4th-Century saint, who was born in what is now Turkey and was famous for helping the poor.

"I'm not anti-Santa," Myers said this week. "But, I do want people to know that this figure is based on a real person with a deep faith in God and compassion for people in need. At this time of year, I want people to focus more on compassion and less on consumption."

On a related note, the Philadelphia Inquirer runs a feature called the Interfaith Calendar. It posts dates of import to the world's religions. Here's how it read for today (emphasis mine):

Roman Catholic, Episcopalian, Lutheran, Eastern Orthodox (New Calendar), Byzantine Rite Catholic Feast of St. Nicholas, legendary fourth-century archbishop of Myra. He is known in the East as the "Wonderworker" and as patron of the Byzantine Rite faithful. He is also the patron of children, scholars and merchants and one of the ancestors of Santa Claus. Traditionally, this was the first of the Christmas season's gift-giving days.

Argh! How many times must we remind reporters that corporations and the Christian church use different calendars? The Christmas season for the former begins in, what, September? For the Christians, it begins on, well, Christmas. We're still in Advent, people.

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