A_Happy_Christmas_(White-clothed_santa_with_a_bag_of_goodies)

St Nicholas (Santa Claus), St Basil, and the Three Wise Men

Central to the excitement of Christmas is the exchange of gifts, and for children the arrival of Santa Claus or Father Christmas. The traditions of winter feasting in northern Europe are a complex mix of ancient ritual, myth and the story of Christ’s birth. An important element of the Nativity story is the gifts given to Jesus by the Three Wise Men from the East. This symbolic gift giving has become largely usurped by the goodly figure of Santa Claus, with his sack of presents for the children. His personality has caught the imagination of children worldwide and they eagerly anticipate his arrival for weeks often after having written to him with their requests. Much of our modern ‘tradition’ derives from the Victorian revival of Christmas as popularised by Dickens in his classic A Christmas Carol, but the idea of ‘Santa’ goes back further to two 4th century Greek saints, Nicholas and Basil.

Scroll down to read the whole story.

  • Facebook
  • Twitter
  • LinkedIn
  • Instagram

St Nicholas (Santa Claus), St Basil, and the Three Wise Men

Central to the excitement of Christmas is the exchange of gifts, and for children the arrival of Santa Claus or Father Christmas. The traditions of winter feasting in northern Europe are a complex mix of ancient ritual, myth and the story of Christ’s birth. An important element of the Nativity story is the gifts given to Jesus by the Three Wise Men from the East. This symbolic gift giving has become largely usurped by the goodly figure of Santa Claus, with his sack of presents for the children. His personality has caught the imagination of children worldwide and they eagerly anticipate his arrival for weeks often after having written to him with their requests. Much of our modern ‘tradition’ derives from the Victorian revival of Christmas as popularised by Dickens in his classic A Christmas Carol, but the idea of ‘Santa’ goes back further to two 4th century Greek saints, Nicholas and Basil.

 

Almost as iconic as Santa at Christmas tide are the figures of the Three Wise Men. No Nativity scene is complete without the Three Wise Men or Magi bringing their offerings of gold, frankincense and myrrh to the Christ-child as told in Mathew’s Gospel. The 3rd century theologian Origen explains the symbolism of these gifts in his Contra Celcus as being in accordance with Christ’s nature as ‘both of God and of a mortal man’, gold for a king, myrrh for one a mortal and incense ‘as to a God’. The same idea is present in the Carol ‘We Three Kings of the Orient Are’, in which each of the Magi or kings gives the reason for his gift. Lastly myrrh is offered ‘sealed in the stone cold tomb’ in anticipation of the Resurrection:

 

Glorious now behold Him arise;

King and God and sacrifice;

Alleluia! Alleluia!

 

The words King and God and sacrifice correspond directly to the gifts of gold, incense and myrrh.

 

The timing of the Magi’s visit is not specified. In the Eastern Church it is celebrated with Jesus’ birth on 25 December, as is often portrayed in paintings showing the shepherds and the kings present together. It became customary in the West for the visit of the Magi to be celebrated on 6 January, Epiphany or Twelfth Night, and evidence from Luke’s Gospel in reference to the Massacre of the Innocents would suggest a gap between the two events. The Greek word magi suggests they belonged to the priestly caste that followed the teachings of the mystic Zoroaster in which the Persian religious tradition of astrology was preserved. The significance of the story lies in its interpretation as an early testament of Jesus being venerated by all Nations (Gentiles). The later tradition of the Magi depicted as Kings is possibly a reading of Psalm 72.11: ‘Yea, all kings shall fall down before him: all nations shall serve him’ (Authorized Version).

 

In Spain and some South American countries the festival of the Three Royal Magi is still an important part of Christmas tradition, but in Northern Europe, it is Saint Nicholas, or Santa Clause, who is the main protagonist. The appeal of St. Nicholas, whose feast falls on feast of on 6 December, is in some respects due to his merger with the traditional pagan English personification of winter in the jovial figure of Father Christmas. St Nikolaos, was a Greek 4th century Bishop of Myra (modern Kale in Turkey) renowned for his generosity to the poor. It is said he secretly gave three purses containing gold coins as dowries to three poor sisters, and from such charity arose the legend of Santa Claus (‘Claus’ being a contraction of Nicholas). His coming down the chimney with gifts to fill empty stocking come from variant accretions to the tradition.

 

Remembered fondly in the West for his gift giving, in the Eastern Churches his veneration is rather different: as a healer, miracle worker and intercessor. He is held to be the most important saint after St John the Baptist and St Nicholas is the only other saint to have a day dedicated to him each week. As the patron saint of sailors, perhaps a transferral of the pagan worship of the Greek god Poseidon, he is popularly depicted on icons calming a storm. On the Greek islands story there is commemorated  by decorating a boat rather than a tree at Christmastime.

 

St Nicholas’ dominance is doctrinal. Invited by the Emperor Constantine the Great to attend the First Council of Nicea (325 AD) he fiercely opposed Arianism, the proposition that there was a time before the birth of Christ when God existed alone, making him an important contributor to the Nicean Creed. An almost certainly inaccurate apocryphal story suggests that, taken up with holy anger, Nicholas struck the heretic Arius during council proceedings. In order to defend his good name, the Apolytikion, a closing hymn in his honour emphasizes that his anger was an isolated incident and indeed justified saying he was the ‘Measure of faith and icon of meekness’. St Nicholas’ veneration in the West may be due to the transferral of some of his remains from Asia Minor to Bari in Italy in 1087. The Basilica di San Nicola became a popular pilgrimage site for Catholic and Orthodox Christians. Both the Feast Day of 6 December (Julian Calendar) and that of the Old Calendar of 19 December (Gregorian Calendar) are still observed with due solemnity.

 

The conflation of Saint Nicholas with Father Christmas owes much to the mix of European traditions in America. Father Christmas’ origins in pagan winter festivals and merrymaking, with its Yule log and mistletoe, meant that he was neither originally associated with children nor gifts. His folklore tradition goes back to at least the 15th century but his influence in England faded during the Puritan domination of Parliament during the Civil War when the celebration of Christmas was abolished. In Holland, the connection of Saint Nicholas (‘Sinterklaas’), with the sea is preserved when he traditionally arrives by boat from Spain on the eve of his feast day, a time of the giving of gifts. In Central Europe, 6 December is when St Nicholas delivers sweets to children. Dutch immigrants took their tradition to American where in the 19th century the modern Santa Claus took shape to be returned back to Holland. Now many Dutch children confusingly believe Santa Claus comes from Lapland with presents on the 25 December as well. The linking of this date to gift giving comes from the German Protestant notion of the Christ-child as the giver of gifts rather than any given saint.

 

To confuse matters more, in the Eastern Church Santa Claus has become conflated with a rival saint, St Basil. Honoured as a major theologian and loved by children as their ’Santa’, he is one of several important Eastern saints that are little known in the West. St. Basil ‘the Great’ of Caesarea in Cappadocia, in modern Turkey, was another 4th century Greek bishop; not to be confused with Basil the Blessed, the 15th century saint whose cathedral famously adorns Moscow’s Red Square. It is on his feast day, 1 January, rather than Christmas Eve or Christmas Day, that families give presents, perhaps because it is closer to Christmas than the feast of St Nicholas.

 

The classically educated St Basil wrote numerous theological works and the Liturgy used on his feast day and other occasions, particularly during Lent. A moderate in ecclesiastical matters such as divorce, he strongly opposed Arianism and contributed significantly to Trinitarian Theology. His many charitable acts, founding an almshouse and establishing soup kitchens to help the poor, made him respected by Christians, Jews and pagans alike and he is commemorated on 30 January as one of the Three Holy Hierarchs (High Priests) alongside the theologians and archbishops of Constantinople, St John Chrysostom and St Gregory of Nazianzus.

 

His Feast Day on 1 January is celebrated with an aromatic sweetbread - St Basil’s pie (Greek Vassilopita, Bulgarian pogatcha, Albanian pitta) - made containing a coin as a token of anonymous charitable giving. The bread is cut at midnight on New Year’s Eve and pieces offered to Christ, St Basil and the family’s patron saint. Christmas is celebrated in the Balkans and Eastern Europe with other coin filled breads, not always associated with St Basil. In Albania, the custom is kept by Christians and Muslims alike. Carols to St Basil sung on New Year’s Eve are meant to bring luck for the forthcoming year and carol singing children expect to be rewarded by households who welcome them in with small gifts.

 

In addition the imagery derived from these saints and traditions is itself a cause for gift giving. Santa, the Magi, nativity scenes and images of festive food are included in cards, wrapping, online greetings and festive books. They are also used in commercial advertising in the form of corporate good wishes and as part of seasonal promotions. The most famous use among them is the red Santa of Coca-Cola, which changed the clothing of the saint from the traditional green to the red we know all have become accustomed to. It was illustrator Haddon Sundblom who, in 1931, created that image; his inspiration, it is believed, was the poem ‘A Visit from Saint Nicholas’ by Clement Clarke Moore with its familiar opening:

 

'Twas the night before Christmas, when all thro' the house,

Not a creature was stirring, not even a mouse;

The stockings were hung by the chimney with care,

In hopes that St. Nicholas soon would be there

 

Another influence on Sundblom’s art would be the designs of Swedish illustrator Jenny Eugenia Nyström, owing to Sundblom’s Swedish-Finnish American heritage. Nyström merged the gnomes of Scandinavian folklore with Santa helping create the idea of Santa’s companions with similar looks and red hats. Sundblom, who also worked for Quaker Oats, continued to create illustrations of Santa for some thirty years becoming probably the most influential illustrator of the beloved saint.

 

Whether young or old, we all look forward to some beloved Christmas traditions every year and gift giving is at the heart of these. The Magi, St Nicholas, Dickens and the illustrators just mentioned continue to inspire the spirit of generosity and joy that prevails during the season of good will.