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December 6, 2013

STAWAR: It’s a jolly day

— Even before the last of the Thanksgiving leftovers were thrown away, the Christmas season arrived in Southern Indiana with a vengeance. It still seems a little early for serious Christmas, but I can tell it’s here. First of all, they have already lit a candle on the Advent wreath at church.

Secondly, I am officially tired of listening to Christmas music, especially those overly sentimental and contrived tunes from the 1940s and ’50s like the maudlin “Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas” and Bing Crosby and Rosemary Clooney’s annoyingly theatrical “Snow” from the film “White Christmas.”

I heard one song the other day called “The Little Boy Who Santa Claus Forgot,” with lyrics like “ “I’m so sorry for that laddie, He hasn’t got a daddy.” At least it’s not as bad as the suggestive and largely inappropriate 1953 song “Santa Baby” — which manages to sexualize Santa as a sort of Minnie the Moocher meets St. Nick.

Another seasonal indicator is that our grandchildren have already opened six doors on the Advent calendar that my wife Diane prepares every year. On Thanksgiving, when she presented the calendar, she made all of them take the pledge to not open any doors ahead of time and to honor the rules about whose turn it is, and who gets first choice. The oath was necessary due to several episodes of Advent calendar hanky panky on the part of our grandson last year, as reported by his vigilant older sisters. Older siblings can be such a blessing.

Finally, today marks an important milestone in the progression toward Christmas — St. Nicholas’s Day. Jolly Old St. Nicholas was an early church father who lived in the fourth century. He was a native of Patara, in Asia Minor, which is now Turkey. A wealthy and pious man, he eventually was made archbishop of the church in Myra.

Nicholas participated in famous Council of Nicaea, a conclave of Christian bishops convened by the Emperor Constantine in 325 A.D. This council lead to the famous Nicaean Creed, which is still a regular part of worship in many Christian churches. According to John Ferguson, author of “The History of the Ancient Church,” Nicholas was a “Christian of a somewhat pugilistic type,” who didn’t hesitate to “box the ears of heretics.” Nicholas is known for being the patron saint of Russia, sailors, children and bakers.

Ferguson also believes that early Greek Christians transposed much of what they believed about the ancient Greek god of the sea, Poseidon, over to St. Nicholas, following their conversion. This may account for the special affinity sailors have for Nicholas. According to the St. Nicholas Center website, there are many legends about Nicholas and the sea.

One story relates how Nicholas made a pilgrimage to the Holy Land when he was young. On the return trip, a powerful storm threatened to sink his ship. Nicholas amazed the terrified crew by calming the waters with his prayers, saving them all. St. Nicholas soon became the patron saint of sailors and voyagers. Greek ships are known to carry an icon of St. Nicholas, where sailors asking for safe passage light candles. Over time, many churches in seaport towns were named after St. Nicholas and sailors and former sailors traditionally packed these churches on St. Nicholas’s Feast Day .

Of course, St. Nicholas, who evolved into Santa Claus, was especially known for his acts of kindness toward children. Perhaps the central legend of St. Nicholas involves his providing gold for the dowry of three sisters. Without a dowry, these girls were unable to marry and were thus destined to live a life of degradation. The girls’ father was too proud to accept charity so according to the story, on three occasions Nicholas tossed bags of gold, through the father’s open window (or possibly a chimney). The bags were said to have landed in stockings (or shoes) left out to dry near the fireplace. This began the custom of leaving out stockings or shoes for St. Nicholas to fill.

One of the more debatable legends about St. Nicholas has to do with three murdered children. In one version, they were killed by a homicidal butcher who plan to sell their bodies in his shop. Through Nicholas’ intersession, the three children were miraculously restored to life and returned to their families.

In another miracle, St. Nicholas returned years after his death to rescue Basilios, a young boy from his hometown. Basilios had been kidnapped by Arab pirates and was force to serve as the emir’s cupbearer. On his feast day, St. Nicolas appeared to Basilios, blessed him, and miraculously transported him back to his parents’ home, still holding the emir’s golden cup. Through these many stories Nicholas gained his widespread reputation as a protector of children and bringer of gifts.

The legends of St. Nicholas were very popular among the people and bolstered support for the Roman Catholic church. Protestantism eliminated the intercessional role of saints and in the course of his reforms, Martin Luther tried to diminish the importance of St. Nicholas as the traditional gift bringer. Instead, Luther proposed an entity which he called “das Christkindl” (an angel-like Christ Child) who brought Christmas gifts to children. The word “Christkindl” underwent many changes and eventually made its way to the United States in the form of “Kris Kringle,” which ironically became a synonym for Santa Claus, who was largely based on the original St. Nicholas legends.

When Diane was growing up in Wisconsin, St. Nicholas Day (Dec. 6) was always a major event. She says that on the night before, she would hang up her stocking and the next morning it would be filled with candy and huge apples and oranges. It was sort of like the Christmas stories in Laura Wilder’s “Little House on the Prairie” series, in which fruits such as exotic oranges or quality eating apples were treasured gifts.

Diane says she never received toys in her stocking, although in other areas, small toys or trinkets were usually given. Since St. Nicholas’ Day was not a school holiday, Diane said that all the children would compare notes as to what St. Nicholas had brought them.

In Diane’s family, they didn’t hang up stockings on Christmas Eve, as is common in most places. They finished decorating their tree on Christmas Eve, the night they would also open presents. Santa came while they were at church.

The celebration of St. Nicholas Day is most common in states like Wisconsin, where a lot of people have German backgrounds. Milwaukee, St. Louis and Cincinnati are a few of the major cities that are known for their celebrations. In the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel, Laurie Schiltz, from Wauwatosa, Wisc., says that she grew up “getting Life Savers and fruit” for St. Nicholas Day and has passed on the tradition to her children.

I grew up in Illinois near St. Louis and I vaguely remember hanging up stockings on St. Nicholas Day. However, Christmas was the big attraction and we also hung up stockings on Christmas Eve.

I also recall my mother telling me that when I was 2 years old I started refusing to take naps. To encourage me, as she was exhausted, she said that I could hang up my stocking every day and that St. Nicholas would leave me a treat if I went to asleep. This went on for the entire month of December. I guess I was more than a little spoiled.

At some point in my childhood, I acquired a Christmas stocking that was very narrow, but at least 4 foot long. For years, I hung it up every Christmas. That stocking was sort of a challenge to my parents and it assured that every year I would get something long and narrow as a present like a baseball bat, a toy rifle or sword.

I guess their ingenuity was overtaxed because one year I got a disappointing yardstick.

— Terry L. Stawar, Ed.D., lives in Georgetown and is the CEO of LifeSpring the local community mental health center in Jeffersonville. He can be reached at tstawar@lifespr.com. Checkout his Welcome to Planet-Terry blog and podcast at www.planetterry.wordpress.com

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