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Brandname Sainthood - Nicholas of Myra

Being a Saint has its advantages and disadvantages.  Adding "Canonization by the Catholic Church" to your resume does enhance it, though you are usually dead when it happens.  You become more than just a secular hero or heroine.  The world looks at your relationships with your fellow human beings; and then the world upgrades the equation to add the "God" factor.  Saints can become legends and very "Iconic" for all times.  Successful Saints transcend their time and move through time.  Unsuccessful Saints become at best a local legend in the hills of Lichtenstein and maybe have a chapel named for them.

"Successful Saint" could be the title given Nicholas of Myra.  He lived in a time of transition and change.  He experienced the time span between persecution and acceptance of Christianity as a legal religion.  The fourth century could be a very confusing time. Especially, for a child orphaned at a young age, living could be filled with psychological issues.  Thankfully, Nicholas lived before Freud and friends.  The boy developed questionable habits on his own.  Nicholas was reported to have given gifts of money and other help to those around him despite his advisors.

"Reported" is the downfall of many Saints; reality becomes legend and legend becomes myth.  The difference between myth, legend and reality is a cultural college course.  In short for reference legends have a basis in fact that is enhanced; myth is an event that is not anchored by any reality.  Reality is just that: boring and depressing at times.

That Nicholas becomes a leader in the Christian community, when Romans authorities were looking under rocks for people to persecute, is a reality.  His existence is not in question like some early Saints (consider poor St. Philomena).  The records from the Council of Nicaea show Nicholas was there and took part in the discussions.  That he ordered Tuna on rye for lunch is a myth.  He is a bridge between persecuted Christianity and Christianity on top of the heap.  Once Constantine legalized and pushed Christianity, the persecuted at times became the persecuters.  The people around him found that Nicholas quietly gave spiritual and financial help to many.  When you see an Icon or Statue of St. Nicholas he has three gold sacks or balls in his hands.  This stems from the legend of his tossing dowry money for three poor sisters down their chimney overcoming their too proud father.   A legend since there might be reality in the tale - after all, it has been 1700 years and stories get embellished.  But despite the time gap it still takes a lot to marry off daughters.

There are numerous stories of Nicholas defending children in a world where children were seen as added workers at home or on the farm.  The Myth of Nicholas reassembling and resurrecting some boys a butcher has turned into pickled meats can be taken with a bit of salt.  However, Nicholas has a strong reputation for protecting the young and those societies abused.

Every Saint is assigned to various groups or places as Patrons.  Poor St. Jan Nepomucký is the patron saint of bridges since he was killed by being tied in a sack and tossed off a bridge.  Nicholas seems to have acquired multiple groups and places under his protection.   There are pawn brokers who have three golden balls as symbols of their trade, there are children he saved, and strangely fishermen.  The legend tells of a time before GPS and double hulls when Nicholas appeared to lost fishermen at sea off the coast of Greece.  He is quite versatile and in ages past his fame had hundreds of churches named for him in both Western Christianity and Orthodox Christianity.

A poor orphaned boy who made good and didn’t forget his roots makes St. Nicholas an inspiration to many. His legends and myths give us his image as Christian Bishop.  He also slips into the realities of the modern world in other ways.  Nicholas being associated with chimneys, children, appearing out of nowhere, giving to those who want or need makes him a saint even the modern world will accept.  Breaking from a plaster image, updating a bishop’s red robes, and taking on a friendly and approachable grandfatherly form; St. Nicholas has hit the big time as Santa Claus in the modern world. 

The jolly old elf the secular world revels in, never is called to express how his sense of Christian Charity leads to his gift giving. The sense of Hope and Love expressed in popular movies and stories tied to Santa Claus seemed to forget that it was the Hope and Love of Christianity which shaped the chubby elfin figure.  The unconditional love of Nicholas is there still reflecting the unconditional love of God for humanity.

So underneath all the Santamania is St. Nicholas.  Seated in the back row at the Council of Nicea, Nicholas of Myra could smile and remember his life.  He lived through and survived persecution.  He learned that sharing life’s material things could lead to sharing the spirit of the Gospel.  He, who as a child lost all, made the lives of children easier.  Yes, he could sit there in the council chambers and feel complete.  Nicholas lived and lives on as a basic good person, who might have ordered tuna on rye or pita while helping to write the Nicean Creed.

Remember Nicholas on December 6th when his spirit found its way home.

- Clifton J. Salkins
December 6, 2010



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