It didn’t take long for the chorus of “Look what they’re doing to Christmas!” by self-righteous Catholics to get started; in Friday’s Daily News, dated December second, for Hells sake, some grouchy old dude wrote in complaining about “holiday trees, holiday specials” and the usual stuff. There are SO many ways to go with this, from “Oh yeah, I mean it’s not like I hear Christmas carols while shopping for Christmas cards and Christmas presents to put under the Christmas tree” , to the more educational tack, “Seriously, the Jews should be complaining that you guys stole Chanukah” , to our favorites, bringing up the many pagan elements that comprise their “authentic” Christmas, and today you can have more fun than usual…up to a point.
Today, December 6th, is the feast day of St. Nicholas, the original Catholic saint who helped inspire Santa Claus; his story is classic old Christianity, filled with magic and miracles. In one tale, Nicholas comes to a city, plagued with famine, in which a butcher has murdered three children (sometimes it’s three of his clerks) and is pickling the remains to sell in the shop; the saint not only detects the crime, but resurrects the three. (Take that, Sweeney Todd!) In one with a familiar ring, he secretly visits a poor man’s house at night to give him money to marry off his daughters (lest they are never married and become prostitutes), throwing purses of gold through a window, and even down a chimney! Legends state that his remains, in the church of Myra (in modern day Turkey) exude a myrrh like liquid with magical healing powers, and even to this day, a sample is collected from his tomb on December 6th. He is the patron saint of sailors, fishermen and sailing ships, and by extension many harbor towns, and the patron saint of all Greece. In medieval England, “bishop boy” celebrations were held on this day, with village boys being made honorary bishops and holding sway over their elders, and nuns were reputed to sneak out on the 6th and leave gifts of food for poor families. Sailors returning home would stop at “St. Nicholas markets”, where hard to find goods would be sold at reasonable prices, and would pick up gifts and foods for feasting. While some gifts would be saved for Christmas, small gifts for children would be given today. In countries like France, Malta, and Spain they have a wide variety of celebrations, all centered around the Catholic saint, so you don’t get more Christmas than that. Of course, the celebrations in the Netherlands had the biggest influence on our Santa Claus, with St Nick in his red bishop’s suit leaving presents in shoes, though we never adopted the “Black Petes” that follow, figures possibly based on the evil butcher from his story, which is too bad, but I guess the idea of children being stuffed into a sack by a red lipped black faced monster isn’t everyone’s idea of holiday fun!
Funny thing is, he isn’t the only Nicholas remembered on December 6th…this is also a holy day for the Gnostic Nicolaites, a small (and probably short-lived) sect of heretics who adopted an extreme position on what is called the antinomian heresy, a belief that stated basically since faith in God is all you need to be saved, it didn’t matter if you were particularly moral. Supposedly (since evidence for their existence is very slight, and this really may have only been the idea of one or two men) they took that to mean that not only can you have sex every day, you in fact should have sex every day if you wanted to be saved. Where’s a church like that when you need it? They called themselves Nicolaites after a deacon named Nicholas, who had a very beautiful wife, and (depending on whom you spoke to) either invited other men to have sex with her, or, joking at his own jealousy, said he would let her have sex with other men if it made her happy. Scholars of the period tend to think that Nicholas had nothing to do with officially starting the Nicolaites, he may have simply been their inspiration.
Some books link this Nicholas to St. Nicholas, not out of any scholarly leanings, but more because it’s a naughty thrill to connect Santa to a guy who recommended daily boinking to get into Heaven, but I’m afraid there is no such link. I do not think we should dismiss Gnostic belief, which postulated that you needed to feel an experience outside of the norm, one in which you became one with the gods, through such diverse elements as dance, music, theatre, drugs, or sex, in order to truly understand the universe and yourself. There is a cold air of detachment about today’s religion that I find unsettling, and I often wonder of the people who commit atrocities in the name of religion could really feel what their god felt when they kill in his name, they might reconsider the whole concept.
But, even though Santa is not linked to a 4th century ladies man, he is still the amalgam of hundreds of years of myth, legend, religion and folklore, all intricately wrapped together, and despite the Christians cries to “Keep the Christ in Christmas”, it’s their own history and habit of glomming onto cultural memes that created the Santa in the first place.