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Monday, December 5, 2016

Tuesday, December 6, 2016 Feast of Saint Nicholas

Isaiah, Chapter 40, Verse 9
Go up onto a high mountain, Zion, herald of good news! Cry out at the top of your voice, Jerusalem, herald of good news! Cry out, do not fear! Say to the cities of Judah: Here is your God!

Isaiah in this chapter of the Old Testament is reminding the Israelites that God will comfort his people and that God proclaims His good news and that He will guide His people like a shepherd. The prophet is urging us to accept God’s grace; a grace that was fulfilled on Christmas in the birth of the Christ Jesus and the angels heralded the good news to the shepherds.

Feast of Saint Nicholas[1]

As is well-known, "Santa Claus" comes from the Dutch rendering of Saint Nicholas, a fourth-century bishop famous for giving gifts anonymously to children and the needy. However, as Father Francis Weiser argues in his Handbook of Christian Customs (p. 113), the various legends surrounding Santa Claus actually come from the god of Norse and Germanic mythology, Thor (after whom Thursday is named). Thor was portrayed as a large, jovial old man with a long white beard whose symbolic color was red (owing to his association with fire). Thunder was said to have been caused by the rolling of his chariot (drawn by two white goats) across the clouds, and his home was said to have been "Northland," somewhere among the icebergs. The fireplace was also considered sacred to Thor because it was through it that he came into his element, the fire. We owe this odd metamorphosis of a Christian saint into a pagan god to New York City. When the Dutch founded the city in the seventeenth century, they observed the Catholic custom of "Saint Nicholas' visit" on the saint's feast day (December 5). This the Dutch did even though they were Protestant. When English Protestants later commandeered the city, they were offended by the practice, but their children very much liked it. The compromise that was eventually made was to transfer the giving of gifts from the 5th of December to the 25th and to add so many pagan elements to the story that the figure of the saintly Catholic bishop (who, incidentally, was notoriously intolerant of heretics) would no longer be recognizable.

The older Christian custom is that on the night of December 5 (the vigil of Saint Nicholas Day), children write notes addressed to the Child Jesus and put them on their window sill, whence St. Nicholas carries them to heaven. A variation of this custom, prevalent in South America, is to write notes sometime between December 16 to 24 and to put them in front of the crib, from which point Angels carry the requests to heaven. Though the value of bringing children up on these stories is open to debate, at least the older customs explicitly tie the reception of gifts to the advent of Christ and portray the other figures (Nicholas or the angels) as His assistants. There was also a charming custom of "St. Nicholas" (a man dressed as a bishop) bringing gifts to children in person on his feast day.

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