Saturday, December 06, 2008

St. Nicholas in Song and Story

Way back in 2001, I wrote a short short story - I suppose you could call it flash fiction - about St. Nicholas. Then in 2004 I wrote a song about him, eventually dumping my rather derivative melody in favor of a hymn by Johann M. Haydn. I'm very proud of both of these, and haven't reposted either one since December 2005. In honor of the Feast of St. Nicholas, let's feature both efforts below, and then I'll come up with something new to say as well.

Meeting Nicholas Again for the First Time
Sung to the Johann M. Haydn melody for the hymn
How Firm a Foundation.
MIDI borrowed from

snagged from stnicholascenter.orgThe Bishop of Myra has something to say
About celebrations of each Christmas Day:
"It's not about me,
But rather for He
Who preserves all our souls, and o'er Heaven holds sway.

"You know me as Santa, and sometimes St. Nick,
Father Christmas, Kris legends grow thick.
But in my mortal life,
I ne'er had a wife,
Nor reindeer--and those are not names I would pick.

"In Patara, in Asia in the third century*,
I was orphaned while young, and yet blessed, as you'll see.
They left me with wealth,
And my very good health,
And the chance to indulge my generosity.

"It was my great joy to look after the poor,
For Earth's treasures mean little; Heaven's treasures I store.
I gave wealth away,
And to this very day,
I've a penchant for gifts children still thank me for.

"When in Myra, Lycia, they could not decidesame source
On a bishop, replacing the one who had died,
A dream said, 'Watch for
Morning's first through that door,
That worshiper will next in Myra abide.'

"As you may have guessed, I rose early that morn,
Ignorant of the station for which I was born.
'What's your name, lad?' they cried.
'Nicholas,' I replied.
Soon a bishop's tall miter my head would adorn.

"I've averted a famine, and calmed storms at sea,
Resurrections of children they credit to me,
I'm patron to poor,
Children, poets and more,
Professions and churches and lands like Sicily.

"At Nicea a council was held, and I went,
From all the known world, other clergy were sent.
I slapped one who denied
God in Three doth abide.
The creed called "Nicene" our group soon would invent.

"The things I did then, in my time on the Earth,
All came about because of our dear Lord's birth.
Once a baby, he grew,
And conquered death, too,
Reconciled us to God, and gave all our souls worth."
*This is an edit; I originally said fourth century, but it's problematic because his life straddles two centuries. He was born in the third century, and presumably orphaned before the fourth century began. But the period of his major activities and the beginnings of his fame were in the fourth century AD.

by Karen Funk Blocher

snagged from:
The bishop of Myra returned to his prayers with satisfaction, wonder, and guilt. Satisfaction, because the girl had awakened at the sound of the bag of gold hitting the dirt floor, and received it joyfully. The dowry meant that she would marry, and have a good life instead of one of degradation. Wonder, because only the Almighty knew the source of the gold. Guilt, because he had accidentally seen the girl partially unclothed. What if that was not what the Lord had wanted him to do?

Nicholas prayed for an hour or more, and went back to bed. Dawn would come soon, and with it morning vespers. In his dreams he was no longer a clergyman, but a toymaker. He had a wife, but no children except the world's children. He wore strange red and white garments to keep out the cold, for he lived in a place of snow and ice. He drove a chariot without wheels, pulled by strange deer never seen in Asia, and gave toys, not gold, to children who called him by dozens of names.

When he awoke, he wondered: was this a prophetic dream, a nightmare, or both? He got up, pulled on his cassock and slippers, and stepped outside for the short walk to the church. The dawn air was still and warm, and the stars were fading into the growing daylight. Nicholas heard a jingling bell that was not a church bell. A single snowflake fell from heaven into the bishop's hand.

More info: St. Nicholas: Discovering the Truth About Santa Claus


Heh. I still like those.

The history of Nicholas' transformation of a fourth century bishop from Asia Minor into the jolly North Pole toymaker is a long and fascinating one. I developed more than a passing interest in it circa 1988, when A&E ran a 1982 British show called The Curious Case of Santa Claus. In it, Jon Pertwee, who previously played the Third Doctor for five years on Doctor Who, played a psychiatrist, Dr. Merryweather, whose emergency patient on Christmas Eve is a man in a Santa Claus outfit, played by James Coco. Over the next 52 minutes the man, who claims to be the real Santa Claus, explains the nature of his identity crisis by recounting his long history, from ancient Myra through the early celebrations of his sainthood, and on through the conflation of his own legend with that of other legendary gift-givers. Poet Clement Moore, cartoonist Thomas Nast and Coca-Cola ad illustrator Haddon Sunblom between them recast him as the chubby, bearded man with the non-ecclesiastic red suit, reindeer and sleigh. Merryweather, of course, doesn't believe his patient is Santa, but apparently the long talk is all the saint needs to feel better, as he dashes off to make his deliveries. It was a touching and memorable story. I always wanted to see it again, and even interviewed Pertwee briefly about it in 1990, as part of a longer interview that eventually appeared in Starlog. John finally tracked it down for me on VHS last year. Inevitably, it wasn't quite as good as I remembered it being. A&E's own Biography series did a better job on the history, albeit without the pathos of Coco's performance.

I love most of the modern depictions of Santa about as well as any Christmas-loving child of my generation, but I think it's also a good idea to remember that the character stands for more than (as is sometimes claimed) holiday commercialism. Some modern songs, films and tv shows recognize this, while others do not. What the bishop of Myra and the magical Macy's employee of (the original) book and film Miracle on 34th Street have in common is a combination of faith, compassion and generosity we would do well to emulate. The song Here Comes Santa Claus (the Gene Autry version) gets this right. The cynical, postmodern Grandma Got Run Over By a Reindeer manifestly does not. (For the record, I also dislike I Saw Mommy Kissing Santa Claus, in which we're given to understand that the child narrator find his mother's infidelity with Santa amusing.) Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer is problematic; Father Joel Ireland at St. Michael's grumbles every year that Santa allows the other reindeer to pick on Rudolph unchecked until the opportunity arises to exploit him. One very recent addition to Santa lore is the Autobiography of Santa Claus series of books by Jeff Guinn. Guinn does a great job of fitting the long, complex history of the saint-turned-toymaker into one consistent story, told from Nicholas/Santa's point of view. Guinn gets a little silly from time to time, enlisting such people as Teddy Roosevelt, Attilla the Hun and Leonardo Da Vinci as his friends and immortal helpers, but the essence of the story and the central figure's altruism remains intact.

Happy St. Nicholas Day!


1 comment:

Liz said...

The poem and story speak volumes in a few words. You are a very good writer of both.