Saturday, 1 December 2012

good saint nick

There are quite a few superstar saints but I think it is a challenge to find one with a more universal following and elaborate traditions than Saint Nicholas. Santa Claus or Father Christmas is a distinct and perhaps a bit of a derivative character, and while not just some corporate stooge, brainchild of Charles Dickens and Coca-Cola, nor ambassador of globalism as he’s sometimes unfairly made out to be, should not be confused or unused interchangeably with the original. The rituals that commemorate his approaching feast day (6. December) have intricate and escapingly elaborate basis in episodes of the saint’s life and enduring influence, and though abstractions and in some cases misunderstandings, I think that this level of detail and heritage keep the holiday and what goes with it inviolate and not usurped by commercial interests or whittled away. The weirdness and confusion of the holidays keep them intact and alive. Nicholas, whose name means “victory of the people,” was a bishop in Myra, Lycia (now Derme, Turkey) and was known for his great charity and playing secret-Santa for the needy, especially for finding creative ways to help those too proud to take hand-outs.

One story tells of a poor peasant who could not afford the dowry to marry off his three daughters, so decided to sell them into prostitution. Nicholas tried to get the father to reconsider but the man saw no other future for them if they went unwed, but reused the church’s overtures for assistance. Instead, under the cover of darkness, Nichols smuggled three purses of gold, one for each of the daughters—according to some sources, by dropping the coins one by one down the chimney and into their stockings drying over the embers in the fireplace. The iconography that generally accompanies portrayals of the saint is an allegory meant to recall these events, and over the centuries, the purses of money or coins came to be represented as three golden balls. People in the Netherlands seeing this depiction thought they were exotic oranges, which explains why one often gets these fruit for stocking-stuffers, and assumed Nicholas was from Spain, which also accounts for the indeterminate number of Moorish helpers who accompany him on his visits, although some say that they are not dark-skinned but rather sooty, owing to the whole connection with chimneys, that are there to judge the naughty and the nice and steal bad children away. The Bavarian counterpart, the anti-Saint Nick, is a monster called Krampus who is likewise along to expose awful kids. In France, the bad cop to the good cop following Nicholas on his rounds, is a reformed by formerly cannibalistic, mad butcher called Pรจre Fouettard, referencing another wonder attributed to the saint: during a famine, a butcher lured three young boys (or in some versions, students) into his home, promising shelter but he slaughtered them and put their dismembered bodies in a barrel to cure and to later sell as hams. Nicholas joined the search party for these lost youths and confronted the butcher and saw through his deception, probably on account of the unexplained hams. And like Circe in reverse, Nicholas restored the youths. The butcher repented and followed Nicholas since. Patron of many occupations besides, from sailors, traders (hence the Dutch knowing about Spanish oranges) and thieves to students, pawnbrokers and children and for many places from Liverpool to Palestine and from Aberdeen to Malta, Nicholas does more than give good gifts.