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Soul FriendsBack to Soul Friends

Advent Thoughts: Saint Nicholas Comes to Europe

Posted by Billy Pilgrim on December 15, 2011, 9:03 am


By the year 1000, Nicholas was a well-known and popular Saint in the East, where he is still much revered in both the Russian and Greek Orthodox Churches. But his hometown of Myra was very much a part of the expanding and vigorous Islamic world at the turn of the first millennium, and his once-sacred bones lay almost forgotten in a disused cathedral in a thoroughly Muslim town.

In the year 1087, a group of sailors from the Italian port city of Bari took it upon themselves to reclaim (some say “steal”) the holy bones of Saint Nicholas from the “infidels” of Myra. A millennium later, his relics still lie in the great Romanesque Cathedral of Saint Nicholas in Bari. Not long ago, physical anthropologists examined the almost-complete skeleton reputed to be the bones of Saint Nicholas and described them as being those of a robustly-built man in his sixties who stood about exactly five feet tall (a right jolly old elf?) and had a broken nose.

During the Middle Ages, tens of thousands of Western Europeans took part in a series of religious wars, known as the Crusades, against the Islamic rulers of the Middle East. Their ultimate goal was to conquer and make safe for Christian pilgrims the holy places associated with the life of Jesus Christ and his early followers. The Crusades’ violence had long-reaching effects that still echo in our world today, but they also opened up trade routes—and the exchange of ideas—between the Muslim and Christian worlds. Returning Crusaders brought home with them a taste for exotic spices, a new knowledge of algebra and geography, and the legends (and relics) of dozens of formerly unknown Eastern Saints.

The people of Medieval Europe enthusiastically embraced a devotion to Saint Nicholas. His fame and popularity spread rapidly, and hundreds of churches were dedicated in his honor across the continent, from Ireland to Poland and Scandinavia to Sicily. Here was a kindly and approachable saint, interested in helping ordinary people who called upon him for aid and solace. As patron saint of children, sailors, and those in need, he appealed to millions of Christians. His lore and legend spread along the expanding sea routes of Europe wherever sailors travelled, and children everywhere grew up knowing they had a special heavenly friend who watched over and loved them.

With a feast day (December 6) early in the winter season and well within the orbit of Christmas, Saint Nicholas fit in perfectly with the generous and festive spirit of the season. By the time of the Reformation, Saint Nicholas was well established in many parts of Europe as a wintertime giver of gifts to children and a symbol of the warmth and coziness--as well as the challenges--of the cold and dark season of the year. His life and the traditions it inspired embodied the Christmas story: the Divine pouring out in the Gift of a Child, a Child who unites Earth and Heaven in that same spirit of giving.

We can trace the origins of our modern Santa Claus most directly to the Saint Nicholas Day customs and traditions of the Netherlands. It was here that the character of the fourth-century Bishop starts to become recognizably “Santa” to us, and it was the Dutch, with their devotion to the kind and generous saint, who would eventually bring him to America.

--Billy Pilgrim
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