The Enid News and Eagle, Enid, OK

December 20, 2013

The gift of St. Nicholas

By David Christy, News Editor
Enid News and Eagle

— In coming days, you again will see the tried-and-true “Yes Virginia, there is a Santa Claus” in the space to the left of this column, reminding us — as if we needed reminding — ‘tis the season to be jolly, fa la la la la and all that holly.

When a young Irish lass, 8-year-old Virginia O’Hanlon, wrote a letter to the editor of the New York Sun, a quick response was printed as an unsigned editorial on Sept. 21, 1897. Reportedly the work of veteran newsman Francis P. Church, it became the most reprinted newspaper editorial in history, appearing far and wide across the globe, in many languages, in movies, posters and even on stamps.

Yes, Virginia, there is a Santa Claus was the paper’s simple reply to the little O’Hanlon girl, who lived on New York’s West 95th Street.

So, is Santa Claus a jolly, red-clothes-decked man of flowing white beard, tethered to eight reindeer and a sleigh, exploiting all those elves back at North Pole central?

Is Santa Claus a beautiful, furry-bikini-clad and curvy miss, hawking wares at some indoor mall kiosk, drawing teenaged boys and the wayward eye of many a middle-aged man trying to get into the spirit of Christmas?

Is he ringing a bell in front of a red kettle, seeking help for those less fortunate at this most festive of times in our rapidly ending year?

Or, in a historical vein with a kernel of fact behind it, does the legend of Santa Claus trace back many centuries to the birth of one Nikolaos of Myra, a 4th-century Christian saint and Greek bishop, hailing from the region of Lycia in modern-day Turkey?

Born about 280 Anno Domini, he became the most popular saint in Europe, admired for piety and kindness, and soon the subject of legend.

Ah, and there’s the rub with history. Much of what we learn from our early history was passed on by word of mouth, embellished or belittled, enhanced or redacted in each and every telling and re-telling of the legend.

St. Nicholas was said to have given away all his inherited wealth and traveled the countryside, helping the poor and sick.

Of the St. Nicholas tales, the most telling may have been that he saved three poor sisters from being sold into slavery and prostitution by their father — not at all uncommon in that day and age — and providing them with a dowry, so they could be married.

St. Nicholas over the years became the protector of children and sailors, a somewhat unconventional combination.

Yet, children are seen as at the mercy of the world when they are young, and sailors at the mercy of an uncompromising sea — so the common thread.

The feast of St. Nicholas was celebrated on Dec. 6 each year, on a day traditionally considered a lucky day to make large purchases or to get married.

For obvious reasons, I don’t think anyone had Black Friday in mind back in the third century A.D.

By the time the European Renaissance had arrived, and the world began emerging from plague, death, poverty and destructive wars of the so-called Dark Ages, by the close of the Julian calendar year everyone was ready for a little bit of light in their lives.

Despite the obvious roots to Catholicism inherent in Saint Nicholas, even the Protestant Reformation failed to dim his positive and maintained reputation amongst people everywhere — at a time when veneration of saints was being discouraged.

Continuing on from its European roots, the legend of Saint Nicholas only grew on the shores of America, as a melting pot of all faiths began to gather here, from the most Protestant Puritans of New England, to the Spanish/Catholic influence in Florida and Georgia from our earliest colonial beginning.

American culture has always embellished, added and made things bigger than life, and Saint Nicholas was no exception.

In December of 1773, on the doorstep of The American Revolution, a New York newspaper reported groups of Dutch families on these shores had gathered to honor the anniversary of the death of Sinter Klaas — Dutch for Saint Nicholas.

It’s hard to place too much blame on today’s vast commercialization of the Christmas holiday. It’s only the latest in a chain of historical legend come to fruition.

Or is it?

As to my column-starting premise, is Santa Claus an amalgamation — a simple idea of the giving, the sharing, the merriment of life?

Is the legend of helping not really lost on us at all — as we gather and give to one another and continue to fill red kettles and angel trees and gift baskets for those of less fortune?

Yes, Virginia, Santa is all of the above.

Christy is news editor at the Enid News & Eagle. Go to his column blog at http://enid toricallyspeaking