Every Christian saint has his hagiography, but the stories’ historical verifiability varies greatly – the more so, the earlier the period during which the character is purported to have lived. A great outcry arose among Roman Catholics in 1969 when Pope Paul VI yanked dozens of saints from the official Church calendar, including such popular figures as St. Christopher, patron of travelers, whose medal hangs from many a rear-view mirror next to the fuzzy dice. Many of the papal demotions occurred because even the Vatican had to admit that there was no more concrete evidence than folklore for a particular saint’s existence.
Happily for the millions who celebrate his name day on December 6, St. Nicholas is not among these blurry figures of reverence. Transcripts from the First Council of Nicaea in the year 325 document that Nikolaos, Bishop of Myra in Asia Minor (present-day Turkey) was indeed present; in fact, it is related that he got into a fistfight with a colleague, broke the other bishop’s nose and knocked him unconscious! And unlike many saints whose mortal remains, if they ever really existed, were broken up into small pieces and widely distributed as “relics” for the working of miracles, St. Nicholas’ bones still lie in a crypt in a church in Bari, Italy. Italian mariners whisked away the remains from the occupation of Myra by the Seljuk Turks in 1087, fearing their desecration (although today, Palestinian Muslims join Christians in venerating the saint in the town of Beit Jala, where Bishop Nikolaos is said to have sojourned on a pilgrimage).
This “rescue” may be the source of the tradition that St. Nicholas is the patron of sailors, embellished with many tales of his calming storms at sea and multiplying ships’ cargoes of grain to fight famine. A team of scientists was permitted to photograph and measure the saint’s bones when the Bari church was renovated in the 1950s, confirming that the skeleton remains largely intact. And an analysis of the data in 2005 by a British forensics lab revealed that it was apparently Bishop Nikolaos, not his adversary, who suffered the broken nose in the theological scuffle in AD 325. He was also only about five feet in height, so our modern-day image of St. Nick as a “jolly old elf” may not be so far off the mark – even though Nikolaos, as a resident of the Near East of Greek extraction, undoubtedly lacked the cherry nose, rosy cheeks, blue eyes and general Northern European appearance that Americans have associated with Santa since the publication of Clement C. Moore’s “A Visit from St. Nicholas.”
St. Nicholas has been revered as a patron of children for centuries, but fortunately, few children today are subjected to the grisly stories popular in medieval times that explain the link. Paintings and icons from that period often depict three figures of children or youths arising out of a wooden tub at the saint’s behest. Depending on the version of the folktale, either a butcher or an innkeeper dismembered the three unfortunates with the intent of curing them as hams or purveying them in meat pies à la Sweeney Todd, only to be foiled by the passing bishop’s miraculous intervention.
It’s probably safe to assume that families who come to the Hurley Reformed Church from 7 to 9 p.m. on Friday, December 3 for “An Evening with St. Nicholas” will not hear the butchered-children legend. The session with Karen Pillsworth, storyteller laureate of the City of Kingston, will focus on the Dutch tradition of St. Nick. More detail is found in the article in this issue on the Sinterklaas celebration in Rhinebeck on how the people of the Netherlands keep this Greek ecclesiastic, born in Turkey in the third century, close to their hearts; but the kids at the Hurley event may well get to hear about how St. Nicholas came to be associated with gift-giving.
Bishop Nikolaos had a reputation for anonymously leaving coins in the shoes that needy people in his town left outside by the doorstep at night. The most famous story is one of a man too poor to provide dowries for his three daughters (adult versions of the tale note that the maidens were on the verge of becoming prostitutes to support the family). The kindly cleric is said to have tossed three bags of gold pieces through the window of the family’s humble abode; in one version he drops one down the chimney and it lands in one of the girls’ stockings hung up to dry on the hearth! Another version replaces the coins with balls of solid gold – which may be the initial inspiration for the Dutch tradition of children finding oranges in their shoes on the morning of December 6.
If you agree that learning some of the ancient lore behind the modern figure of St. Nick is a healthy antidote to the rampant commercialization of Christmas, you can scarcely do better than to take your kids to hear this noted storyteller next Friday evening. They’ll get to participate in a crafts activity and take home ornaments that they made themselves as well. Refreshments will be served, and there is a suggested donation of $3 per child, who must be accompanied by an adult. Space is limited, so call ahead for reservations at (845) 331-4121. The Hurley Reformed Church is located at 11 Main Street in Hurley.