Monday, December 8, 2014

Adversity and Saint Nickolas: "How a Turkish Bishop became Santa Claus"

Statue of St. Nickolas and the three children
One of my favorite places in Turkey is the long, jagged, azure-blue, 1,000 mile coastline of the Mediterranean Sea. An ancient port, visited by Paul on his way to Rome, is Myra, (today with the Turkish name: Demre). The Apostle Paul was a prisoner of Rome and  Myra was one of the best ports for ships bringing grain from Egypt. (Mark Anthony and Cleopatra stayed there as they prepared to fight Augustus for control of the Empire.)

Bishop Nickolas lived in the fourth century. Visitors can visit the remains of his 4th Century church. He believed in living very humbly, unlike some  bishops through history, and was especially concerned with  adversity that came upon families burdened by debts.

The government removed this statue in 2006
One family in particular caught his attention. Most likely, the mother had died, or was incapacitated. The father of three children was unable to pay his debtors so the family was threatened with the imminent sale of three children to pay off an "impossible mountain" of debt. What a situation of adversity! How would help come to this family?

However it happened, and many variations of the story circulate, Bishop Nickolas took coins (maybe gold or silver coins?) (his own or those of the church?) and gave them to the father in unexpected way. (One variation says he placed coins inside an open window during the summer night where they were found the next day.)

The ENORMOUS Russian shop for souvenirs of St. Nickolas 
At any rate, the funds were sufficient to keep the family intact, not living in poverty, but not living in great wealth, either. No children in that family were sold as slaves.

This is the most famous story, and there are plenty of others, too. Kindness and generosity flow from this story.

Unfortunately, the reason behind Bishop Nickolas' generosity, the life of Jesus Christ who gave life to others, showing 'agape' love, and especially his concern for children, is usually left out of the picture.

In Myra / Derme there is no hint of the gift of salvation through forgiveness of sins, that which we consider to be the greatest gift of the season. (More on this in my next blog post.)

The incredible twists and turns by which this famous, short man with a big heart became known for his Saint Nickolas' day, which is celebrated by the Orthodox Churches around the world on December 6, is a tale you might want to spend another five minutes reading.

Gradually, giving at Christmas became a custom of Western Christianity with children lining up for photos with Santa Claus in shopping malls throughout the world. The story  is briefly summarized  here in Wikipedia. A map and many photos are here in Google maps.


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