Sunday, December 6, 2015

Saint Nicholas, the Christian Bishop Who Became Santa Claus, & Turkish Chutzpah


Desubleo: Saint Nicholas
Knowing that today is the feast day of Saint Nicholas, the fourth century Greek Christian bishop in Anatolia upon whom the character Santa Claus is based, I took a few minutes to read up a bit on him.  And, as the saying goes, you learn something every day.

This I already knew:  That Nicholas was known to freely give gifts, often in secret, to the needy, and his practice became the basis for the Christian custom of gift-giving at Christmastime; That somehow the practice of gift-giving was moved, for most Christians, to Christmas Day; That the name Santa Claus comes from the Dutch name “Sinterklaas,” which is some sort of linguistic corruption of “Saint Nicholas.”    

What I did not know was that Nicholas was one of the bishops at the First Council of Nicaea and was such an ardent defender of the “orthodox” Christian position on a point of Christology against that of Arius that, according to legend, he punched Arius in the face.  Nicholas was one of the signatories to the Nicene Creed, a variation of which is still recited in many Christian churches today.

Most art work on St Nicholas seems to be in the Orthodox tradition, two-dimensional and unrealistic, but I came across an appealing painting on the subject by the 17th Century Flemish painter Michele Desubleo, who spent his career in Italy: “Saint Nicholas with the three school children and a Carthusian monk.”

Nicholas died in 343 and was buried in southern Anatolia.  His tomb became a popular religious site to visit.  About 700 years later, the area was threatened by the invasion of the Muslim Turks.  To protect the relics of St Nicholas, some of his remains were whisked off to Bari in the heel of Italy.  The rest were soon carried off to Venice, a maritime culture especially drawn to the patron saint of sailors, where a church in honor of Nicholas was built on the Lido, one of the islands in the lagoon. 
Church of San Nicol├▓ al Lido, Venetian Lagoon

An amusing epilogue:  According to Wikipedia, in 2009 “the Turkish Government announced that it would be formally requesting the return of St. Nicholas's skeletal remains to Turkey from the Italian government” on the grounds that Nicholas’s remains “were illegally removed from his homeland.”

So here we have it:  the Muslim Turks, increasingly becoming more religiously fundamental and even less-hospitable toward Christians, and not all that long after slaughtering the Christian Armenians, and who as a people were not even living in Anatolia at the time of Nicholas, now are demanding the seventeen hundred-year old remains of a Christian man who once lived in Anatolia hundreds of years before Muhammad was even born.  There’s a Yiddish word for this – chutzpah.  St Nicholas was part of a Christian culture in Anatolia that the Turks purposefully destroyed, but now the Muslim Turks want his dusty bones back presumably to promote Christian tourism.  I suspect the Turks will be waiting a long time, but if they are really serious about the principle of returning old stuff to rightful owners they could start with a show of their bona fides by returning to Christians Hagia Sophia, once the greatest church in Christendom, and whatever holy artifacts survived the centuries of their wanton destruction.  And, while they’re at it, why not return the entire city of Constantinople?  Now that would be a real show of good faith.

R Balsamo

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