Today is the feast of Saint Nicolas!
From Wikipedia (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Saint_Nicholas) and St Nicolas Center (http://www.stnicholascenter.org/pages/who-is-st-nicholas/):
"Saint Nicholas was born a Greek in Asia Minor during the third century in the city of Patara which was a port on the Mediterranean Sea, and lived in Myra, Lycia (part of modern-day Demre, Turkey), at a time when the region was Greek in its heritage, culture, and outlook and politically part of the Roman diocese of Asia. He was very religious from an early age and according to legend, Nicholas was said to have rigorously observed the canonical fasts of Wednesdays and Fridays. His wealthy parents died in an epidemic while Nicholas was still young and he was raised by his uncle—also named Nicholas—who was the bishop of Patara. Obeying Jesus' words to "sell what you own and give the money to the poor," Nicholas used his whole inheritance to assist the needy, the sick, and the suffering. He dedicated his life to serving God and was made Bishop of Myra while still a young man. Bishop Nicholas became known throughout the land for his generosity to the those in need, his love for children, and his concern for sailors and ships. He did many kind and generous deeds in secret, expecting nothing in return. Under the Roman Emperor Diocletian, who ruthlessly persecuted Christians, Bishop Nicholas suffered for his faith, was exiled and imprisoned. After his release, Nicholas attended the Council of Nicaea in AD 325. He died December 6, AD 343 in Myra. To honor this faithful servant of God, we designate December 6th as Saint Nicholas Day (19 December in most Orthodox countries)."
So far so good: what I have explained above has all been facts that we have strong evidence for in the historical record.
Now to move into the murky waters:
One of his most notable acts of kindness was allegedly that he once donated, in secret (at night), money to a poor man with three daughters. Quoting from the Saint Nicolas Center again:
"In those days a young woman's father had to offer prospective husbands something of value—a dowry. Without a dowry, a woman was unlikely to marry and destined to be sold into slavery. Mysteriously, on three different occasions, a bag of gold appeared in their home-providing the needed dowries. The bags of gold, tossed through an open window, are said to have landed in stockings or shoes left before the fire to dry. (Sometimes the story is told with gold balls instead of bags of gold. That is why three gold balls, sometimes represented as oranges, are one of the symbols for St. Nicholas.)"
To commemorate his alleged charitable act to the poor father of the unmarried daughters, in many countries we used to have children hang stockings or put out shoes to eagerly await gifts from Saint Nicholas on Dec 6th (again, 19th for orthodox). Note that for most churches, the date of hanging out stockings for Saint Nick was eventually shifted to coincide with Christmas Day (or in some churches a bit later in January to coincide with the day the wise men came to visit Jesus) as part of a revamp of the Christmas holiday calendar.
So why do I say this is murky water territory? In the 11th century when Bari, Italy wanted to bring security, fame, and money to it's city it did so in a popular method of those days: track down the corpse/bones of a known saint and relocate them within the city limits (allowing the city to become a destination for religious pilgrims and ensuring nobody would harm the city since it housed a saint). Bari chose Saint Nicolas and reburied his bones near/on/in the vicinity of the temple that had been built for a pagan goddess called Pasqua Epiphania (who it just so happens, was famous for giving gifts to children, leaving them in their stockings). Was the story of his gift to the poor father true and known before he was buried near the temple of Pasqua Epiphania (if so, a coincidence that probably caused a lot of confusion)? Or was the story of his gift giving simple a result of Pasqua Epiphania's gift giving being conflated with Saint Nicolas? I don't think we will ever know. We are certain however that Pasqua Epiphania is the inspiration for his wife aka Mrs. Claus (hello, who ever heard of a bishop having a wife?) and so it's probably not a wise idea for Christians to embrace Mrs Claus in any fashion of their holiday tradition.Tell the children the truth: Saint Nicholas was NOT married.
Actually, the entire evolution of Saint Nicolas into the celebrated figure of Santa Claus is also quite troubling and maybe best to stay away from. For example, the image of him with a long white beard comes directly from a bunch of German and Celtic pagans who associated Saint Nicholas with their god Wodon. Wodon had a long white beard. And the sleigh with reindeer? Woden was known for riding a horse through the heavens in autumn. It's not too hard to see how Wooden riding a horse + Saint Nicolas = Saint Nicolas riding a sleigh with reindeer. I don't mind that our faith borrowed a few customs from the pagans around the holidays (love me some Christmas trees and we will discuss paganism again in a later post on Christmas) but it seems very wrong and insulting to tangle up a good Christian man from the 4th century with a bunch of fake pagan gods. I don't think Saint Nicholas would appreciate it much and we lose track of the real man he was and the good works he did when we bring in the Santa Claus imagery and reindeer, etc. If I had children I don't know how I'd handle the legend of Santa Claus (versus the real man Saint Nicolas). If I teach my child to appreciate the real Saint Nicolas (along with other Christian heros and heroines) and say nothing about his relationship to the legend of Santa Claus (allowing the child to believe in Santa as a separate entity and enjoy getting gifts from him), aren't they going to figure out that Saint Nicolas and Santa Claus are somehow related since they are called by the same name in many songs, movies, etc? And how would I explain that relationship? So that doesn't seem like a workable solution. Instead if I let my child think they are the same person, how do I explain how a man who lived so long ago is still alive today and how he moved from Greece/Turkey to the north pole and got the reindeer, etc? And the third option - to teach them nothing about the real Saint Nicolas (letting them get all their "facts" from the Santa Claus legend) is especially insulting to Saint Nicolas and totally unworkable as a solution. I'm really stumped and glad I'm not a parent.
In our all adult household tonight, on the anniversary of his death, we will have a dinner in honor of Saint Nicolas because he was a faithful servant of god and a man worth celebrating, regardless of whether he did or did not take the extraordinary action to save a specific poor man's daughters from a life of misery.