First things first: A blessed Feast of the Nativity to one and all, especially for those in church traditions that follow the liturgical calendar rather than the calendar of the Chamber of Commerce. Christmas is here and, well, Donald Trump has nothing to do with it.
So, thinking about church history, I was worried when I saw a Washington Post analysis piece with a headline that proclaimed: "Five myths about Saint Nick."
I was, of course, worried about that word "myth." Quite frankly, I was worried -- in the context of St. Nicholas of Myra -- about either of the most common definitions of this term:
1. A traditional story, especially one concerning the early history of a people or explaining some natural or social phenomenon, and typically involving supernatural beings or events. ...
2. A widely held but false belief or idea.
As an Eastern Orthodox Christian, calling St. Nicholas of Myra a "myth" is, well, fightin' words. At the same time, connecting the secular superhero named Santa with St. Nicholas the saint would present trouble for other people. I've written a whole lot about both sides of that tension (click here for more).
Some Orthodox folks might quibble with a few words of this piece, written by Adam C. English, a Christian studies professor at Campbell University, a Baptist campus in in North Caroline. He is the author of “The Saint Who Would Be Santa Claus: The True Life and Trials of Nicholas of Myra.”
However, the big idea of this piece is spot on: Yes, there is a real St. Nicholas. However, he is not the man at the shopping mall. Thus, for English, Myth No. 1 is this:
Saint Nicholas was a white European.
In the vast majority of depictions, Santa Claus, Saint Nicholas and Father Christmas are portrayed as white-skinned Europeans with rosy cheeks and white beards. Former Fox News anchor Megyn Kelly could have pointed to innumerable examples from film, art, toys and advertisements when, in a 2013 broadcast, she asserted that “Santa just is white .”
But Nicholas had a Mediterranean complexion and spoke Greek. He was born sometime after 260 in Patara, a port town on the coast of modern-day Turkey. The region had been colonized by the Greeks centuries earlier. The racial category of “white” wasn’t one the ancient world was acquainted with, and it would not have occurred to anyone at the time to describe themselves in that way.
Now, there is lots to read in this piece. If you are Orthodox or Catholic, you may have heard lots of these discussion points. You know, for example, why St. Nicholas is the patron saint of endangered children. You know why some people think he should be the patron saint of the pro-life movement.
But what about the stories about St. Nicholas and the gifts? That brings us to English and his Myth No. 3:
Saint Nicholas’s gift-giving inspired his legend.
A National Geographic article tracking Nicholas’s transformation from saint to Santa cites a “better-known tale” in which “three young girls are saved from a life of prostitution when young Bishop Nicholas secretly delivers three bags of gold to their indebted father, which can be used for their dowries.” In describing Nicholas’s festive metamorphosis from bishop to Kris Kringle, the History Channel’s website likewise claims that the account of the three dowries is “one of the best known of the St. Nicholas stories.”
When I first started reading about St. Nicholas, the saint, I liked another detail of that story. The family, in this story, was obviously quite poor. Thus, the females in the household couldn't afford lots of extra clothes. In particular, they only had one pair of stockings, each.
Thus, every night they would wash their stockings and hang them in a window to dry. The Bishop Nicholas -- who was born into a wealthy family -- didn't want to call attention to his gifts. So he came in the night and dropped the small bags of gold into the stockings in the window. The rest, as they say, is history.
Now, I do with this Post feature had mentioned that the Feast of St. Nicholas is NOT on Dec. 25th. Instead, it falls (in the West) on Dec. 6th, during the quiet, penitential season known as Nativity Lent (or Advent). The custom is to give children small gifts (often chocolates, wrapped in gold-colored foil to resemble coins) and to stress the need for alms for the poor.
Like, I said: It's not the guy at the mall.
Read it all. And reporters: Why not mark Dec. 6th on your story planning calendar for next year. Is anyone in your news region going to mark that feast?