Wednesday, 24 December 2014

father frost

Reviewing a list of seasonal gift-bearers, I found it a bit jarring at first to see the list of regional variations on the familiar characters of Santa Claus and Saint Nikolaus to abruptly change to Saint Basil for the Greeks and other lands that follow the Orthodox Church.

It is not as if the historical personage of Saint Nikolaus, also hailing from Asia Minor, comes to us directly down the chimney in his present rosy and jovial form without some significant outside influences and concessions to preexisting customs, but—without knowing the evolution of the saint, it seems that this aesthetic monk who is the patron (among other things) of Russia—though Nikolaus is the protector of Moscow—and hospital administrators, and sometimes professional commencement speaker who delivers presents on 1 January seems vastly different. Not a direct counterpart, the Orthodox Church considers Nikolaus moreover an advocate for sailors, though sharing the same charitable feelings for children and the poor, and instead allows this early Church doctor and delegate to the synod that Constantine convened at Nicaea in order that those squabbling Christians could hash out their differences once and for all to champion the cause of delivering gifts and good cheer at Christmas time. As Nikolaus became conflated with Santa Claus, his helpers and Father Christmas, so too did Basil take on the manners and duties of Дед Мороз (going by many names), Father Frost. Originally a Slavic spirit of the wintry weather, parents used to ransom their children with treats for the spirit to protect them during these harsh months. Saint Basil helped Father Frost have a change of heart and he reversed his ways and began paying back the community. Compare this to one of Basil’s historical missions when he rallied the town of Caesarea to denote all their material wealth to raise an army to defend themselves from immanent Raids.
All the people of the town, from the richest to the poorest readily complied but when the attackers never materialised, no one was quite sure what they had given, so Basil decreed that the gold coins be baked into sumptuous loaves and given out to all residents, and so was the wealth redistributed. This lucky tradition is observed in Greece and other lands on New Years to this day—the vasilopita, Basil’s pie. Father Frost was also considered secular enough a figure to sneak past the Communist regimes that sought to eradicate religious practises. Saint Basil’s reputation for caring for the poor also stemmed from his marshaling of traditions that formed the self-sufficient monastic orders. Outside the gates of Caesarea, there was a grand campus called the Basiliad, which was a model for later monasteries with a guesthouse, hospital, a hospice and a library. This basic unit of government greatly influenced the hierarchy of the Orthodox Church and the monastic movement took hold in far-flung places like Ireland, helping to preserve learning and the faith with supporting institutions, like the Roman Empire, fell is but one accomplishment among the retinue of Basil’s legacy—plus bring presents.