Sunday, December 31, 2006

The real Santa Claus!

“Merciful, wise and fearless” is how the Coptic Synexarion describes St. Nicholas, the 3rd century bishop of Myra. He was persecuted and imprisoned during the reign of Diocletian and Maximian. Later during the reign of Constantine I, he was present at the Council of Nicaea in 325. Though many miracles have been attributed to the saint, he is best known for the anonymous gifts he gave to those in need. The most famous story is that of the merchant who lost all his wealth. He had there daughters and no money to give them as dowry. So on a cold Christmas night, St. Nicholas took a small bag of gold coins and threw it into the merchant’s house through an open window. The first daughter was married off. Next year, he left a similar gift for the second daughter. Now the merchant wanted to know who his benefactor was, and so on the third Christmas night he decides to stay awake and find out. And the rest, as they say, is history.

He is known by various names in different cultures. I call him ‘Christmas Father’. In Kerala he is also called ‘Christmas Appachan’ and ‘Christmas Appoopan’. In different parts of the world, many local beliefs have been assimilated into the story of St. Nicholas. And time, politics and commerce too have taken their toll. After the protestant reformation in Europe, there was a conscious attempt to purge all extra-biblical traditions. The reformers had a particular dislike for saints and St. Nicholas was no exception. Some even went so far as to ban Christmas. But of course, everybody knows you can’t ban Christmas. And you can’t have Christmas without Christmas Father. So stories were invented about the North Pole, and reindeer and elves in an attempt to avoid any talk of saints.

Back then, in that part of the world, belief in saints was not considered 'politically correct'. Today, in most of the western world, religious belief is itself beginning to be considered politically incorrect. There is a misperception that one must not express religious beliefs in public. This inevitably leads to the flawed conclusion that if we must continue to celebrate Christmas as a public festival, it should be decoupled from the underlying religious beliefs regarding the Nativity. Sadly, Christmas is under siege once again.

The reindeer and sleigh and elves and Mrs. Claus are just stories. And the guy at the mall with the red suit and the mask is not the real Santa, he’s just pretending. But kids, if some presumptuous grown-up know-it-all ever tells you that Santa is just a fictional character, tell them about the real St. Nicholas.

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