December 6

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The Feast of St Nicholas

At one time, Nicholas was, aside from the Virgin Mary, the most powerful of saints, prayed to for aid by Christians of all sorts and the patron of hundreds of churches from Iceland to Turkey. After the Protestant Reformation he fell on hard times; in the twentieth century he fell even lower at the hands of Pope Paul VI. But thanks to a love of Christmas his reputation is arising once more.

Legend says that Nicholas was born into a rich family living in what is now Turkey in the days of the late Roman empire. He became a priest and then a bishop of Myra in southern Asia Minor. Nicholas is said to have been at the 325 Council of Nicaea, which was held to determine whether Christ was truly divine, and where he supposedly struck Arius, the arch-heretic, a blow to the head. He developed a reputation for charity and miracle working which, after his death, led him to be venerated all across Europe. In one incident he was able to fly and rescue a sinking boat, leading him to be the patron saint of sailors; in another he resurrected three young scholars who had been pickled in a cask by a cannibal innkeeper, making him the patron saint of students, barrel makers and pickle makers; in another he dropped off gifts of money secretly at night to a poor family, saving the daughters from lives of prostitution, thus becoming the patron of maidens, marriage and a magical gift bringer to children.

By the year 1200 stories had spread of his giving gifts to children on the eve of his feast day, December 6. For 300 years he came by night on his white horse and left treats in the shoes of good children (and threatening bad or lazy kids with a good beating.) In the 1500s the cult of saints was abolished in Protestant lands and Nicholas was replaced in much of Europe as Christmas Gift-bringer by the Christ Child. However his legend was taken to North America by Dutch settlers where tales of good Sinterklaas lingered in the public imagination. Early in the 1800s New York poets, writers and illustrators reimagined him as “Santa Claus”, the figure who took the world of Christmas giving by storm, becoming a global superstar in the twentieth century.

Lately, however, Santa Claus has been subject to a campaign of resistance in those countries where he displaced traditional gift givers. In Spain, supporters of the Three Kings want the Magi returned to centre stage while in Germany, Austria, and the Netherlands, societies for the restoration of the legend of St Nicholas have placed the old fellow back in the hearts of children.

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