December 05, 2009

Santa, baby…

…the benevolent Saint Nicholas of Myra, Bari and the North Pole.

Don’t let the children know, but Santa Claus lies dead and buried. His present condition-a heap of dust, a cranium, and a few splinters of bone-and his present whereabouts-in the hot heel of Italy-do not hinder his Christmastime polar flights, his descent down chimneys, or his lavish offerings, so there is no need for anxiety. Indeed, perhaps the real surprise is that Santa could have died at all, since that entails that he once was as alive as you and I, that he was young, perhaps beardless, and may have weighed less than two hundred pounds.

In his long history, Santa had traveled much farther than the distance from the North Pole. He actually descends from a very ancient thaumaturge, or wonderworking saint, who has been venerated in Europe since the sixth century: Saint Nicholas, bishop of Myra. The scarlet suited, cheery figure we celebrate today is a nineteenth-century creation. It was Washington Irving, in his Knickerbocker’s History of New York, and Clement Moore, in A Visit from Saint Nicholas, who inaugurated in America the modern character of the Christmas holiday and its ritual largess. Although they represented the jovial lord of bounty with his sack of toys as entirely traditional, as an authentic and ancient part of Dutch Protestant culture in New Amsterdam, the personality of their Santa is largely an invention. Nevertheless, their version of the jolly Sinter Claes, the Lowlands’ patron of cookies and sweets whose feast is December 6, was enthusiastically adopted. Santa Claus became Manhattan’s saint and the genius of Western commercial Christmas.

Saint Nicholas, his avatar, was once of medieval Europe’s favorite saints. In France, the cathedral of Chartres narrates the story of his adventures and miracles on the south portal and in four stained-glass windows. In England, 385 churches were dedicated to him before the end of the fifteenth century, compared with 202 to the country’s patron saint, Saint George. His cult inspired the earliest verse dramas in Europe, tuneful musical liturgies and popular songs, and widely disseminated icon. His bones, which miraculously exuded myrrh, a fragrant oil of great power for healing, were the focus of one of medieval Europe’s most energetic cult.

Saint Nicholas has lain in the Italian port city of Bari since 1087. For more than seven hundred years before that, his body was venerated in his church in Myra, now in ruins, where, according to his legend, he was bishop in the fourth century A.D. Myra, a sheltered harbor on the southern coast in present-day Turkey, provided a refuge for his ships along that inhospitable shore, and the shrine was well attended by pilgrims giving thanks for the protection of Saint Nicholas. He could, they attested, fly through the air at will and still wintry storms. His flowing myrrh, gathered by the tomb’s guardians, who lowered the sponge into the sarcophagus and then squeezed the liquid into phials, was eagerly collected. This ability made him a special type of saint, a myroblythe, one who has the power to generate new relics perpetually.

The fame of the shrine spread, and after the Byzantine defeat by the Saracens at Manzikert in 1071, when that part of the Greek empire was occupied by the Moslems, the Christians of the western Mediterranean began to cast covetous eyes on the precious body of the saint. In an enterprise, that perfectly anticipates the Crusades in its blend of chivalry and crime, a company of sailors from Bari-sixty-two in all-sailed to Myra to save the beloved Saint Nicholas for the Christian world. They met with opposition, for the often-tolerant Saracens has left the sanctuary untouched, and its Greek clergy were still in attendance, attempting to prevent the Barians from stealing the relics. The Greeks “wailed and rent their priestly garments from their breasts,” wrote the chronicler Nicephorus soon after the event. Their efforts were to no avail. The Barians, declaring that they had been told in a vision to take the body, tied them up and scolded them: “It is only right that so important and illustrious a state as Bari should enjoy this great patronage.”

On May 9, 1087, Saint Nicholas was translated, as the liturgical phrase has it, and arrived in Bari. The feast of his translation is still celebrated on that day, the climax of a week of festivities. His arrival by sea is reenacted in the harbor, while the archbishop and notables of the town gather on land and in boats to greet the huge, garlanded effigy of the saint coming to shore.

Bari is prosperous today, the most well to do town in the new South, but then it was not “a great state” as the proud native son Nicephorus claimed. Saint Nicolas, it was thought, would help it to become one, just as Saint Mark, translated from Alexandria to Venice, had hallowed that city’s ambitions. Bari was a strategic base in the Norman kingdom that the family of Hauteville were consolidating in the South while their cousin William was conquering England. It was a crucial port for the great adventure in the East that would start with the First Crusade, a decade after Nicholas was translated. The acquisition of his wonder-working body contributed vitally to the aggrandizement of the town and of its new lord, Bohemond, the future prince of Antioch and cousin of Roger II, the future king of Sicily. Nicholas rendered illustrious the place where he came to rest, and by radiating holiness he confirmed his new owners’ legitimacy.

Bohemond ordered that the site of the former palace of the Byzantine governor be used for a new, splendid shrine to Saint Nicholas. The basilica of San Nicola di Bari rose quickly, an austere, uncompromising edifice. Just two years after Nicholas’s arrival, the new pope, Urban II, preacher of the Crusades, consecrated the crypt in which the saint still lies.

Colonnaded like a shady, mysterious grove and starry with sanctuary lamps hung from the vaults, this subterranean shrine focuses all attention on the tomb of the saint, in the center.

A huge four-teenth-century icon, covered in chased and beaten silver gilt, hangs over it. Above the crypt, in the chancel of the basilica, the high altar stands under an exquisitely sculpted octagonal ciborium.

The archbishop’s throne, behind it, is a remarkable example of fantastic Lombard sculpture. On the floor of the chancel, ornamented with inlaid marbles, a border of Cufic lettering gives the name of God in Arabic, while the crypt houses the world’s first Orthodox chapel in use inside a Catholic church. Saint Nicholas indeed has the power to overlook differences and effect reconciliations; like his Norman devotees, who employed Arabs, Greeks, Jews, and Latins in their kingdom in the South, he counts few people strangers.

Saint Nicholas’s powers extend into many spheres: he is a dependable guardian against explosives, the favorite intercessor for perfumers, and, in Paris, the patron saint of firemen; but above all, he is a protector of children, like his descendant Santa Claus. Also, as his biographer C.W. Jones put in his learned and witty study Saint Nicholas of Myra, Bari and Manhattan, he has always shown” due respect for the material things in life” and so became the adopted saint of bankers, pawnbrokers, merchants, and shopkeepers. A typical miracle of Saint Nicholas, as told, for instance, in the twelfth-century comedy Le Jeu de Saint Nicolas, by Jean Bodel, shows the saint's sensitive understanding of the human acquisitive impulse and proper sympathy with the need for possessions in this life. In the play, an icon of the saint is set up to guard a treasure belonging to a heathen "barbarian. " When thieves steal it, the owner whips the saint's image in fury. In response, Nicholas appears to the robbers and terrorizes them into returning the hoard to its owner, who promptly converts to Christianity.

Money is again the issue in another miracle play, in Latin, that takes place in Myra during Nicholas's youth. A father with three unmarried daughters decides that he will have to sell them into prostitution one by one since he cannot provide them with dowries. Nicholas, hearing of their straits, rescues each girl in turn from her fate by throwing a bag of gold in through the window at night. This clandestine act of selfless generosity, so similar to the nocturnal and secret visits of Santa, was painted with a delighting sense of human drama by Fra Angelico in one of the two panels illustrating Nicholas's life in the Vatican Pinacoteca.

The three bags of gold eventually migrated from piety to commerce and became the emblem of moneylenders, the familiar sign of the pawnbroker's shop.

In still another miracle play, also much painted, Saint Nicholas revives three youths murdered for their money by an avaricious innkeeper, who salted their corpses away in a tub of brine. Gradually, the saint's care for young people transformed a clerical celibate into a grandfatherly figure: in some of his cult statues, Saint Nicholas appears with a child beside him, like a man taking out his grandson. This child, called Basileos, or Adeodatus, "given by God," was kidnapped by Saracens, according to the Nicholas legend, and then taken into slavery to be cupbearer to the emir of Crete. His grief-stricken parents visited the shrine of Saint Nicholas, and there, on the steps, a year after his disappearance, they found their son again, with the emir's golden cup still in his hand.

Like Santa Claus, Saint Nicholas has magical powers of displacement and can transport himself and others anywhere at any time.

His care for children also inspired lullabies. In Apulia, tired mothers sing to their babies, telling them that the infant Nicholas abstained from his mother's breast out of piety and called instead for pen and ink and parchment. In these dialect songs, the miracle worker of Myra whose bones drip fragrant oil in the tomb in Bari often becomes recognizably Santa, provider of all things for children at Christmas.

When children consult with Santa asking for a special toy, they are unwittingly continuing the ancient Christian belief in intercession, so scorned by those very Dutch Protestants who were this country's first devotees of Santa, and keeping alive at the heart of Christmas materialism the religious cult of one of Christendom's oldest and best-loved saints.


Anonymous said...

nice, interesting, learned something, again.

Alistair said...

its looking more and more like Christmas.

Alan said...


a fan said...

Aha, now I know the story of
St. Nick. Thanks.

a blog fan said...

That is a cool bunch of reindeers.

Tommy Lee said...

Just got the call about Russ.
We will all miss him. And yes Saint Nick is apropos.

Angela said...

Thank you,
A most delightful expose on St. Nick.

A Silverlake neighbor said...

I have enjoyed your blog since you started
and think I should, finally, tell you how much I appreciate these postings.