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H - 152 : Saint Nicholas Day, 6 Dec 1977

It was a snowy winter evening when we approached the farm house where the Egloff family lived. A foot of fresh snow muffled the sound of our steps. The flickering candle in my brass lantern and the sound of my brother’s handbell were the only signs of human activity in the dark and quiet night. In the farm house we saw lights going on and off and heard the excited shrieks of the three Egloff children. “Saint Nicholas is coming! Saint Nicholas is coming!” It was a moment of beauty I will never forget.


We looked like this - Photo is from the Internet though - but we had no Donkeys

 

My brother and I were on our Saint Nicholas tour which we did every year in our 400 people village. Dressed in a dark Ruprecht cloak, my brother had pulled his hood deep over his eyes. A big sack with ginger bread was slung over his shoulder. With his right hand he rang the bell and made the typical “ Ho Ho Ho!” sound. I was dressed in Saint Nicholas’ red bishop outfit with a giant white wig and a voluminous beard. The dim light from the lantern guided us – nobody had cleared the snow that evening. I also carried the big golden book with the script for the visit.


We carried these Types of Gingerbread in my Brother's big Bag for the Children

 

Three weeks earlier I had returned from officer school as a proud young second lieutenant. My next stint in the army was a few weeks away so I had the time to interview the parents.  I asked them how the kids behaved last year, what they wanted me to say and how many gingerbreads I was to hand out. Everything was carefully noted in my golden book – my black notebook from High School – now wrapped in golden foil. My brother and I loved the job. The children looked at us with big eyes. Not knowing whether to be afraid or to be happy. We seemed to know everything. Who had not cleaned the dishes when asked; who played tricks on his siblings; who never did the homework. Most of them recited a poem to make sure we were on good terms. Rumour in the village had it that my brother would put misbehaving children in his big bag and take them away. Of course we never did. 

 

For the first 400 Years, Saint Nicholas was probably buried on Gemile Island before his Bones were transferred to Myra. We visited Gemile Island in 2018


Little did I know that 41 years later we would visit one of the places where Saint Nicholas lived and was buried. We discovered his Gemile Island by chance on the first day of our trip to the Holy Land. This summer we are going to see his cathedral in Myra.


Saint Nicholas Cathedral was built in the 5th Century BC by Byzantine Emperor Theodosius II


Nicholas was born in 270 AD into a wealth Christian family. They lived in Patara, one of Lydia's harbors. When his parents passed away, he inherited a significant fortune. He spent it on the sick and needy and was known for his generosity. Nicholas became Myra’s bishop at a young age. At that time, the church was underground. Emperor Diocletian (284 – 305 AD), persecuted Christians ruthlessly. Nicholas himself was thrown into prison, tortured and exiled. We do not know for how long. He was released with the announcement of the Edict of Milan in 313 AD which made Christianity legal. In 325 AD, after Constantine became the sole Emperor, Nicholas was invited to attend the Council of Nicaea. Major theological questions were discussed and resolved (see my blog from 2022). We do not know what Bishop Nicholas contributed. There were 320 bishops from the entire Roman Empire. But he must have been an important voice.

 

The Council of Nicaea was chaired by not-yet-baptised Emperor Constantine (the man with the crown in the foreground) - something the medieval Catholic Church struggled with


There are lots of stories about Saint Nicholas’ generosity. None of them can be verified. In one he resurrected three murdered teenagers. In another he financed the dowry for three daughters who would otherwise have ended up in slavery. It is best to read these stories from the source. Saint Nicholas is venerated by Catholics, Orthodox and Protestants. With his empathy for people and children in need, he became a model for a compassionate life. Throughout Europe, Asia and Africa, Saint Nicholas Day is celebrated on the 6th December, the day he passed away. The tradition in every country differs. It is fascinating how the very same story is interpreted in so many different ways.

 

The American Santa has more to do with American Independence than the real Story


Santa Clause in America is different though. It is related to the American War of Independence. In 1773, patriots from New York (they were a minority) formed the “Sons of St Nicholas” to counter the influence of the pro-British St. George Society. It had nothing to do with the traditional Saint Nicholas story. After the defeat of the British, New Yorkers “rediscovered” their Dutch heritage. “In January 1809, Washington Irving joined the society and on St Nicholas Day that same year, he published the satirical fiction, … , with numerous references to a jolly St. Nicholas character. This was not the saintly bishop, rather an elfin Dutch burgher with a clay pipe. These delightful flights of imagination are the source of the New Amsterdam St. Nicholas legends; that the first Dutch emigrant ship had a figure head of St. Nicholas; that St. Nicholas Day was observed in the colony; that the first church was dedicated to him; that St. Nicholas comes down chimneys to bring gifts. Irving’s work was regarded as the "first notable work of imagination in the New World.”

 

From here, it is not far to get to the flying sledge with Rudolph, the Red-Nosed-Reindeer. Coca-Cola salaried Santa Clause comes on Christmas Eve as a Nordic gift delivery man. Or as the nice uncle who waits in the Department Stores for kids to sit on his lap.

 

One of several smashed Sarcophagi in the St Nicholas Cathedral - not his Tomb though


When Nicholas died in 343 AD, his remains were first buried in Gemile and later transferred to Myra. A church was built over his tomb. It was later replaced by the current cathedral which still partially stands. There was no formal process of canonization at that time. People simply started to call him a Saint based on the miracle stories they heard. Myra became a pilgrimage place. Fast forward, in 1071, the Byzantine Emperor lost the battle of Manzikert against the Seljuk Turks. Nothing stopped them from moving into Anatolia – which they did. The call for the first crusade went out. In the ensuing chaos in 1087, merchant mariners from Bari managed to steal most of Saint Nicholas' bones. Venetian sailors who came a few years later took the rest. We thus have a Basilica di San Nicola in Bari and the Monastery of San Nicolo al Lido in Venice. Both churches have their own Saint Nicholas festivals.

 

The mighty Basilica di San Nicola in Bari houses the bulk of Saint Nichola's Relicts


Saint Nicholas' message of a compassionate and modest lifestyle is still important today. In our consumer society though, the principle “help so people can help themselves” is often drowned by the volume of gifts we believe we have to make. I guess it is worth to return to the roots of the Saint Nicholas tradition. Receiving gifts makes someone happy for a few days. Enabling people to help themself makes them happy for their life.

 

Recent DNA Analysis proved that the Bones in Bari and in Venice are identical

 

 

 

 

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