I belong to a book club here in BH, in which all the members are foreign. The language that bonds us is English, but we are from all over the planet. During our end-of-year meeting last week, we got to talking about how Christmas was celebrated in our childhoods, in particular if the main celebration was on December 24th or December 25th. I think the tally was about 50/50. One person mentioned that her family celebrated on December 6th, which is Saint Nicholas day.
We were unanimous in our first impressions of Christmas in Brazil, with all its sophistication and glitter. The fact that nothing special is prepared for Christmas Day, on the 25th, was a letdown for most of us at when we first arrived in Brazil. The Americans celebrate Christmas on the 25th, and the Germans on the 24th. In most European countries, the mothers decorate the trees behind closed doors, and the children aren’t allowed to see it until everything is ready. Many people at our meeting recalled that after the doors were opened and the children could take their first glimpse of the tree, they were called on to recite a poem or sing a song that they had prepared for the occasion.
A man from the Czech Republic related that he was taught that Baby Jesus delivered the gifts, and that it was always a wonder to him that a baby could get around so much. Quite a few nationalities had a tradition of eating fish on Christmas Eve, usually carp, and all of us, with the exception of the guy from the Czech Republic, were encouraged to believe in Santa Claus when they were children.
A British lady, who spent part of her childhood here in Morro Velho in the midst of 100 other British families, remembered that “the company” sent a mule-drawn litter filled with presents for the children and that they held a big ball for the grown-ups on Christmas Eve, which caused them to be kind of grumpy the next morning at gift-opening time. She said that in England, children were told that Santa Claus carried a stick made from a birch branch, which he would use on any children who had been bad during the year. The German people said that January 6th was almost as big as Christmas, and on Christmas Eve it was a tradition to give the house a good cleaning with brooms. Then they had a simple meal of fish and went to a church service at night.
People from quite a few countries people said that their mothers decorated the trees and the kids were not allowed to see the tree until gift-opening time, and many mentioned that the trees were lit with real candles. Of course, everybody was brought up with a real pine tree that was grown and bought for Christmas festivities. A lady from the Philippines told the story of the year her mother filled the Christmas stockings in secret and put them outside to appear that Santa Claus had brought them. But they were stolen before the kids could get to them! She said that hearing her mother bitterly complain about the missing stockings, in particular because she had put money in them, made her realize that Santa Claus was not the person who filled them.
A lady from Japan had a funny story; both of her grandfathers had gone to school abroad and her family was Christian. When she was in first grade, her mother, who was shopping in a department store, called home and asked her brother, who was 5 years older than she was, what to get her for Christmas. Her big brother simply turned around and told her that Mom was on the phone and wanted to know what she wanted for Christmas. She was shocked when discovered at that moment that it wasn’t Santa Claus who supplied the gifts and remembers this clearly until today. Her younger brother overheard the conversation, but she said he faked believing in Santa Claus for quite a few more years.
As for me, I can still remember my mother sitting me down on the organ seat and telling me about the non-existence of Santa Claus before my big brothers could get to me. I only remember it, including the exact spot where it happened, because it was a disappointing piece of grown-up knowledge to acquire. In our home, Christmas Eve was casual, and as teenagers we would go out in the streets caroling and Mom would make a big pot of spaghetti to bring our friends home to. Gifts would miraculously appear under the tree Christmas morning, even when we were teenagers, but stockings would be opened only after a big and special breakfast. Mom would make a big turkey dinner served at lunchtime, with all the trimmings, and usually our grandparents or other relatives would come.
If you are going to influence some child by telling him or her that it is a fat guy dressed in red who somehow gets into their homes to leave gifts on a specific date, you should probably know a little history about him. Especially if you intend to include that he flies through the skies on a sled pulled by reindeer, even in tropical countries. But yes, he really did exist. Well, kind of. Whatever, you can definitely tell any child that Santa Claus was a good guy, but you may want to censor the parts about prostitution, torture, orphans, imprisonment, tomb raiders, dismembered children, corpse commerce, traveling bones and one enormous plastic Santa Claus. But that’s up to you. Enjoy the exercise.
Painting by Luca Signorelli, Italian Renaissance painter, of the birth of Saint Nicholas aka Santa Claus
Santa Claus came from what is today , and born to a wealthy Christian family in the year 280. Legend says that Nicholas was born so religiously inclined that he refused to on Wednesdays and Fridays, which were fast days. Some legends say he stood on the day he was born. He became an orphan at age 9, and was brought up . He turned into both a wealthy and a highly educated young man who spoke several languages.
He decided he needed an adventure before settling down, the same as a privileged young man might today. As a good Christian, he made a pilgrimage to Egypt and , but he encountered trouble. He was imprisoned and tortured because he was a . A few years later, Emperor Constantine ascended to the throne and released him. Nicholas returned to his birthplace, Myra. It turned out that he showed up in the right place at the right time, as it happened that the bishop of Myra had just died, and Nicholas was made bishop. Still a very rich young man, he felt guilty because he had so much. He began giving some of his fortune away. Legend says that the first gift he gave was three bags of gold to three unmarried daughters of an impoverished noble man. The man had become so poor that his daughters were going to have to become . His surprise gift became the dowry that enabled the girls to marry and live happy lives.
Nicholas himself married a woman named Layla, who convinced him to give away instead of the family gold. She thought children needed to be reminded that there was joy and goodness in the world. Christian art depicts another legend about him making the sign of the cross over dismembered children who had been cut up to be . St. Nicholas is credited with restoring them to life. Another story says that St. Nichols climbed up on a roof on Christmas Eve and by mistake dropped a down a chimney. It supposedly fell into a stocking hung to dry by the fire, and that is where the custom of Christmas stockings comes from. At that time, parents started to make up stories about a good bishop who rewarded well-behaved children with little gifts while they were sleeping. You might say that the legend of Santa Claus began as a bribe.
After Nicholas died a natural death in around 350 CE, he was canonized a saint. At the time of his death, Christians in Palestine observed January 6th as both the birth date and the baptism of Jesus, and St. Nicholas’ feast day was on December 6th, which was also his death day. After Christ’s birthday was changed to December 25th in the 4th century, the celebration of St. Nicholas’ feast day eventually became into the same day, although his official feast day remains December 6th. He was originally buried on an island, which today is known as Gemile Asasi, and means Island of Sailors; he is the only major saint associated with Turkey. However, about 300 years after his death, his remains were moved to Myra, because the island seemed to vulnerable to attack by . Today Myra is called Demre.
But Saint Nicholas’ skeleton did not stay in Myra. He had become one of the best-loved saints in Christendom, and everyone wanted a piece. Early churches were built on top of the tombs of saints because it was thought that they could protect the churches and possibly even perform . It is said that the bones of Saint Nicholas secreted a liquid called manna that smelled like and possessed a healing power. People came from afar to visit his tomb, and maybe he simply became too popular.
In 1087, tomb raiders came from a town called Bari in the boot of Italy, but found the monks that guarded Saint Nicholas were not willing to give up his remains. It ended up that the raiders tied up the monks and smashed Nicholas’s sarcophagus open. They said they smelled the manna, and took the relics back to Italy. Saint Nicholas suddenly became Nicholas of Bari, and a new basilica was immediately built, which began to attract pilgrims. It still does. The thieves were well rewarded for their bringing such a popular saint to Italy and so were their descendants, who for centuries received a of the offerings that pilgrims left on Saint Nicholas’s feast day. Nowadays, you can buy manna drawn from Saint Nicholas’s sarcophagus that has been mixed with in little shops in Bari. I’m not sure that the main remains of Saint Nicholas are still in Bari. At least the Irish say they are not. They claim that two French knights stole a good part of his relics while participating in the Crusades, and brought them to Ireland.
And then there are also the smaller remains; the Bari tomb raiders didn’t get the whole skeleton. sailors came along later and stole whatever the first thieves had left behind in their hurry, and took these parts of Saint Nicholas’s remains to Venice. They were the smaller bones, and it has been scientifically proven that they belong to the same skeleton that is in Bari. But some of these smaller bones, such as a finger bone and a tooth, were sold or given as gifts and eventually became scattered all over . Sometimes Saint Nicholas’s official bones make formal visits to other countries when they go out on loan. But they never go back to Turkey.
Some people feel sorry for Demre/Myra with their empty tomb, even though the country is 99.8% today. In 2000, the then-mayor of Moscow gifted the town with a bronze statue of Saint Nicholas, standing on top of a globe. It was placed in front of the Church of St. Nicholas; the church that does not hold the saint’s remains. The statue brought tourists and the tourists brought money. In 2005, the city council removed the Christian statue and placed it the church courtyard. They replaced it with a , claiming that this figure was universally recognized and more popular. Protests came from all over the world, but the city kept their bright red Santa until 2005. On Christmas day of 2008, it was replaced with a fiberglass statue of a “Turkish Santa” commissioned by the Turkish Culture Ministry. But the fiberglass Santa was removed for construction work on the square in front of the church, and although the work is finished, the statue has not been replaced. It could be that it will not be until the government of Italy returns the stolen bones to Turkey, something that Turkish officials have been demanding for years.
Saint Nicholas is considered to be the Patron Saint of children, sailors and of . His red suit, trimmed in white fur, originated from the bishop’s robes. Nowadays people give Christmas gifts both as a reminder of the goodwill of St. Nicholas and of the Wise Men’s gifts to the Christ Child. The immigrants who immigrated to what is today New York State called the saint “Sinterklaas” and that name eventually turned into Santa Claus.
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