It's nice when his feast day falls on a Sunday.
One of my favorite Christmas books is The True Saint Nicholas: Why He Matters to Christmas, by William J. Bennett. It's a wonderful book about Nicholas the man, Nicholas the myth, and Nicholas the super-myth that has become our modern Santa Claus.
I'm not a huge fan of Bennett's work---I was annoyed when he used Parson Weems's fatuous lie about young George Washington chopping down the cherry tree to illustrate "honesty" in The Book of Virtues. Using a fabrication to support the virtue of not fabricating things struck me as ignorant, and from a man as accomplished as he, unworthy.
That said, he did a sterling job with this short book. At first glance the goofiness connected to Santa Claus---you know, flying reindeer, weird elves, North Pole, Burgermeister Meisterburger---would seem to be an insult to a dedicated follower of Christ, who risked his life for the faith many times in a perilous age. Bennett answers it this way in the introduction: "This saintly man who lived so long ago has come to influence one of our holiest seasons and most beloved holidays. The influence that has come across so many centuries is a kind of miracle. It is evidence of God's love."
Bennett then goes on to talk about the tremendous popularity connected to Nicholas after his death, and the astounding legends attached to him, some of which are as goofy in their way as slipping down a chimney with a sack full of toys. One legend has him single-handedly destroying a temple of Artemis, turning it literally upside down and exorcising the demons that dwelt within it.* No wonder he was called Nicholas the Miracle Worker. He was so popular that, as Bennett writes, "By the end of the fifteenth century, more than 2,500 churches, chapels, monasteries, hospitals, schools, and works of art had been dedicated to Nicholas in Western Europe. England alone boasted nearly 400 Nicholas churches."
Even some of the most famous stories about the real Nicholas are generally unsubstantiated, according to the Catholic Encyclopedia. At Nicaea he supposedly slapped a heretic**---although he may not have even been there. Nicholas has never been removed from the rolls of the saints, because there was a real holy man behind the legends, but he has definitely been downgraded***. But he is still the patron saint of 78 cities, as well as Russia, Germany, and Greece. It might be easier to list the professions that he is not the patron of than those he is****.
Bennett connects the dots between the real Nicholas, the legendary Nicholas, the various elves and spirits associated with Christmas in Western culture through history, the emergence of Santa Claus, and how Santa became what he is today, all in a very neat 116 pages.
Ultimately it all sings together in a story of love, hope, devotion, mission, and mercy, and what better Christmas message would you want?
May Saint Nicholas intercede on behalf of us all on this, his feast day. And happy Christmas to all, and to all a good night!
* Don't ask about the chopped-up students in the pickle barrel. Well, Nicholas put them together and brought them back to life, so it was okay in the end.
** He felt bad about losing his temper, but Arius had it coming.
*** See also Saint Christopher.
**** His patronage, by the way, includes toy makers. :)