December 22nd, 2012
10:00 PM ET
My Take: The Christmas message of the real St. Nicholas
Editor’s note: Adam C. English is author of "The Saint Who Would Be Santa Claus: The True Life and Trials of St. Nicholas of Myra" (Baylor University Press, 2012) and associate professor of religion at Campbell University.
By Adam C. English, Special to CNN
Four years ago, I embarked on a quest to discover the truth about Santa Claus and the original St. Nicholas. My search took me many places, sending me finally across the Atlantic to Bari, on Italy’s Adriatic coast.
The old town of Bari is a brambly, medieval maze of streets and alleyways that cross and crisscross. It is said that the city was intentionally constructed in a topsy-turvy way so that anyone trying to raid it would get swallowed and lost in its labyrinth. If you keep wandering, though, eventually you pop out onto a plaza and see the Basilica di San Nicola.
And there, in a gray tomb, lies the “real” Santa Claus. The basilica housing that tomb dates to the 11th century. You can go into the basilica and pray, rest or just gawk, but the real show lies below.
Down dark steps you will enter a candle-lit crypt, built in 1089, supported by 26 marble columns. Through a grate you will see a large marble and concrete tomb, St Nicholas’ final resting place.
Little is known for certain about the life of Nicholas, whose name means “the people’s champion.” He was born sometime after the year 260 and died sometime after 333.
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He was bishop of the church in Myra in what was then the Roman province of Lycia, Asia Minor. He attended the Council of Nicaea in 325 with the other bishops of the Christian empire, where he would have seen the Emperor Constantine.
Perhaps he would have slipped into obscurity as nothing more than a minor saint - originally he was a patron saint of sailors - except for one unique story that circulated about him shortly after his death.
It’s such a strange and surprising tale that historians assume it must be based to a large degree on fact. It is the tale of three poor daughters.
Nicholas had been aware of a certain citizen of Patara - in Lycia, modern-day Turkey - who had once been an important and wealthy man of the city but who had fallen on hard times and into extreme poverty. The man grew so desperate that he lacked the very essentials of life.
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The poor man reasoned that it was impossible to marry off his three beautiful daughters because they lacked dowries for proper marriages to respectable noblemen. He feared they would each in turn be forced into prostitution to support themselves.
Nicholas heard this heartbreaking news and resolved to do something about it. He bagged a sum of gold and in the dead of night, tossed it through the man’s window. The money was used as a dowry for the first daughter.
Sometime later, Nicholas made a second nighttime visit so that the second daughter might marry. Later tradition reported that, finding the windows closed, he dropped the bag of gold down the chimney, where it landed into one of the girl’s stockings that was hanging to dry.
When Nicholas returned to deliver anonymously the third bag of gold for the last daughter, the curious father was ready. When he heard a bag hit the floor, the father leapt to his feet and raced outside, where he caught the mysterious benefactor.
Nicholas revealed his identity to the father but made him swear never to tell anyone what he’d done. He did not want praise or recognition for his generosity.
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More impressive than its connection with modern-day Santa Claus traditions is the tale’s historical uniqueness. The vast majority of saint stories that circulated in the early church involved extraordinary miracles and healings or dramatic martyrdoms and confessions of Christ.
They involved monks who went into the desert and experienced the tempting of the devil and the burning of the sun, mothers who’d had their entrails spilled onto the Colosseum floor for Christ, mystics who saw the heavens open in their visions.
But the Nicholas story was about a regular family facing a familiar crisis to which ordinary people could relate. Those in the pews had never heard anything like it.
When medieval Christians looked at the great church frescoes, basilica mosaics and cathedral stained glass pictures of Jesus, Mary, John the Baptist, the apostles and saints of old, there was little to distinguish one saint from another.
But St. Nicholas was easy to spot. He was always pictured carrying three bags of gold. The story of his helping the three sisters jumped off the dry page of history and into the minds and imaginations of young girls and boys and adults.
Indeed, Nicholas would become the most popular nonbiblical saint in the pre-modern church. More churches would be dedicated to him than to any other person except Mary, the mother of Jesus. The first medieval drama that was not intended as a worship ritual and that was written in the vernacular was about Nicholas.
No wonder, then, that sailors from Bari wanted his bones. In the 1080s, Seljuk Turks invaded Lycia and Asia Minor (what is now Turkey). It seemed only a matter of time before they would plunder the tomb of St. Nicholas.
The Barians resolved that his bones be moved, or “translated,” to use the expression of the day. Under the nose of the Turkish overlords in control of the area 47 Barian sailors disembarked at Myra disguised as pilgrims.
They quietly made their way to the church of St. Nicholas, hiding swords and shovels under their clothes. As soon as they entered the church, they barred the doors, smashed the marble cover and looked inside.
They found more than they had bargained for: Nicholas’ bones were floating in a sweet-smelling liquid like oil or water. Known as the myrrh or manna of St. Nicholas, the liquid was highly valued for its purported miraculous and therapeutic qualities.
The bones were taken back to Italy and a basilica was erected in Bari to house them. To this day, Nicholas’ tomb continues to excrete a small amount of watery liquid.
Every year on May 9, one of the Dominican friars charged with the upkeep and care of the Basilica di San Nicola squats down in front of a small opening in the tomb and slowly collects a vile of the myrrh of St. Nicholas. It is then diluted in holy water and bottled for pilgrims and visitors.
So there is a lot more to the story of St. Nick than meets the eye. His bold initiative to help three poor girls in need sparked a tradition of gift-giving that has carried into modern times. The magical Christmas Eve visits from Santa Claus represent the vestige of this old story. Instead of fixating on the commercialization and greed that plague the modern Santa Claus, I chose to see in it the lasting power of a simple act of kindness.
More than a footnote to the legend of Santa Claus, Nicholas is a model of Christian kindness, an inspiration for charity and a saint to be remembered. He challenges us at this time of year to give not only to those we know and love, but also to those we do not know and especially to those who find themselves in need.
The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of Adam C. English.
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The CNN Belief Blog covers the faith angles of the day's biggest stories, from breaking news to politics to entertainment, fostering a global conversation about the role of religion and belief in readers' lives. It's edited by CNN's Daniel Burke with contributions from Eric Marrapodi and CNN's worldwide news gathering team.
"They found more than they had bargained for: Nicholas’ bones were floating in a sweet-smelling liquid like oil or water. Known as the myrrh or manna of St. Nicholas, the liquid was highly valued for its purported miraculous and ther.apeutic qualities."
they could take this mysterious liquid to a lab and have the lab test it to see exactly what's it's made of. i'm guessing they would find it was really just water. i'm guessing they wouldn't say "it's 10% magic stuff!" silly christians.
I think the whole thing is rather disgusting, myself...
How could they? The magic stuff is invisible... That's what makes it magic! Don't you know that?
Merry Christmass everyone 🙂
Does Christ have mass?
mars- every December 25.
What does the theory of relevancy have to say about Christ having mass only one day a year?
Happy Saturnalia, Woho.
This year Christmas falls on a Tuesday - named in honor of the Norse god, Tyr (Tiu). Do we still honor that god? No, but we still call it Tuesday - 52 times a year. One day Christmas will have the same old-timey reference.
And you know, December means 10th month - it's not the 10th month, but every year we call it that...
There are 12 months in the Julian callendar because the earth passes Jupiter's orbit 12 times each year.
July and August were added and named in honor of the Caesars.
Yes, John, but we still call it "December", even though it's not 10th anymore. We still call it Tuesday, even though it doesn't stand for Tyr anymore. Guess what about Christmas.... ?
My atheist wife won't let me put up nativity scene at home.... Never marry an atheist!
If that's your biggest problem in marriage call yourself lucky.
Have you tried impregnating her? Perhaps she just hates the little parasites and not Jesus.
OMG, Mr. Tarver, what an idiotic thing to say!
I wish that atheism and atheists did not exist....
The poor will always be with us.
maybe you should pray more.....lol
What would be the fun in that? We keep you in busines.
LOL @JPT. "Poor" in every sense of the word belongs to the lemming-flavored religious.
There are some good atheists out there. I just wish people wouldn't spill hate at people.
joan- I know of the blind sheep of Christ's Calvanist brother Ba'al, but of course Christ commands his followers to "be Aware." These same blind sheep believe they are good christians and are in church on Sunday. In the old days these folks would be refered to as sodomites, but the Catholic Church redirected that ire.
So, you hate all babies who are all atheists until indoctrinated into the cult of their parents.
JJ- I see infants as exempt from judgement. The alternative religion displaced by Judeo/Christianity required your first born as a human sacrifice. The practice of sacrificing any unwanted children under the age of 12 in some ways parallels abortion today.
"John-I wish that atheism and atheists did not exist...:
Have you thought about that? The world wold end.Is that what you want?.
You are aware, JPT, that part of the problems facing Christians today is that they cannot agree what Christianity is??
Your 'Calvinist' remark makes that clear.
They use the same Bible, do they not?
As do the RCC.
Akira- The blind sheep of Ba'al do in fact use a different bible, based in Helenized versions of the OT and NT; called the NIV et al. As we know from Genesis, the cross burner's god is a burned up stick, but they are in church every Sunday.
I wish some christians didn't fear and hate people who don't believe exactly what they do. It must be terrible to be so bitter.
So Christians can't even agree on which Bible version is correct?
You don't see a problem with this?
There are many translations in use today; all of then say virtually the same thing, just slightly different wording...
So you condemn one branch of Christianity...nice.
Akira- "There are those who say I have come to bring Peace; I have come not to bring Peace, but a Sword, to turn father against son and brother against brother." JC
Happy birthday our lord and king, Jesus Christ. We love you!
WoW jesus lived in Buckingham palace?
Yes Jesus, we love you. Please call. All is forgiven.
king- The anointing of Christ by Mary Magdelene is even more problematic than this long winded nut. Is Mary in the shoes of samuel anointing christ King of the Jews, or anointing her husband?
Some writings indicate that Jesus was married to Mary Magdalene...and I'm not talking about Brown's bestseller, either.
Happy birthday, Mithras. I'm sorry that christians stole your birthday and made it all about their guy, Some of us still remember that you're the reason for the season.
The anointment by Mary, acting as head of the Church, is paradoxical to the paternalistic heiarchy of the Christian Church and so there are writings using the only alternative reason for Mary to anoint Christ.
That holidays where invented !!!
The earth may not be flat but spacetime sure is.
Relativity proved space-time is a fantasy in 1907. Let us discuss something real, like Santa Claus.
Is Santa Claus a necessary being?
assembly- My master can make another of me from a stone; none of us are necessary.
Is your master a necessary being?
assembly- Relativity and Quantum Mechanics require a sentient being outside the universe to make the universe real, but Buddists get along just fine without any interest in this being. The Bible claims that all of creation was done so this sentient being could live as a Jew for less than 45 years, but that is but one notional hypothesis.
Tarver: "Relativity and Quantum Mechanics require a sentient being outside the universe to make the universe real"
Please elaborate on the assumptions made that lead you to this statement. For then, unto others here, your propaganda will be exposed.
Don't be silly. It has noting to do with relativity or quantum mechanics. Reality only exists as models that approximate it. There is no complete perception of it.
Don't be silly, John.
1. The inner cosmology of the atomized realms
2. The outer cosmology of the celestial realms
3, The cellular cosmology of the living realms
Is not this triune manifestation of cosmological constraints a viability worthy of considerations?
So....who created that sentient being?
Nobody EVER answers that one.
The question of creation by third rate demon, or one perfect spirit is as older than Abram.
I prefer option c: None of the Above.
The simple truth is that we do not know the origins of the universe (if indeed it had an origination.) To claim creation by god or demon is to simply take the easiest route and as.sign supernatural qualities to something that is just as, if not more likely a perfectly natural phenomenon. Better to say "I don't know" than to worship your ignorance and call it "god".
The establishments of creative evolutional contrasts are of cellular orders being made thru and by and of and for inner cosmological formularies being rendered as transitional perspectives of propositional orders regarding sub-atomized beings living in the abundances of cellular life realms. To the religious these 'sub-atomized beings' are viewed as being gods. To Star Wars enthusiasts they are seen being as 'midi-chlorians'. To my perceptions these 'sub-atomized beings' within all cellular life are the mechanics and operators of all bio-molecular machines within each and every cell of all cellular life forms.
Envision if you will a cosmos of limitless universes. Imagine also innumerable cosmos within the realm of outer space. The realm of outer space is so vast that there just may well be uncountable numbers of cosmos holding within them innumerable amounts of universes. The universe we find ourselves within is but one among many so many.
Thank you for the surprisingly concise comment, Lion. However, there is no proof of what you say, only speculation, and none of that speculation indicates any need for a god.
My 'speculative' nurturing is long thought out. Sciences' brain powers limit outer space as being a singular universe. I find such a view as being frivolous and benign even unworthy of thoughtfulness. There is nothing in sciences telescopic nuances to give credence for or against my stance regarding multiple cosmos entwined with immeasurable universes. Although just a theory is my speculation. Though I see its soundness as being a relativity of truth, it is yet to be formulated in fundamental sciences slow turning theoretical fundamentalisms.
Santa Claus embodies the spirit of giving displayed all over the Globe at this season.
Wanton dissipation of wealth, it's Christian potlatch.
Some- The gift giving in this season is actually a tradition of Ba'al, a religion that had spread across the entire Globe before Christ. Christ's birth was placed coincident with Ba'al's to usurp the Holiday by the Catholic Church.
The Roman Saturnalia, which corresponds to this time of year, involved gift giving, celebration and temporary equality for slaves.
Why is that, because a saint use to do good?
Nothing wrong with people doing good.
Some of them have $$ and don't need a Nick, much less a St.
Abject hatred of some just for the sake of hatred is difficult for others to comprehend. Best go about YOUR business of being Christian in your actions and pray for the lost souls amongst us.
(just to be fair).
Although this story is in the "Belief " section of CNN it is really not a Religious story as much as it is a story of generosity to one's fellow man. And yet the anti-Religion bashers are going bonkers trashing it . Why ?
I think if you read a really bad novel, you probably not going to think well of the book signing event, the free promotional book marker, etc. that lured you to the awful book.
Well for one example the post directly below yours begins with a quote of Exodus. The religious view anything that even comes close to them as sacred. The story is about the real man behind Santa Claus...true....not religion. But like religion the story about the real man bears little resemblance to the myth. Santa and his flying reindeer, workshop at the north pole...nothing whatsoever to do with the historical figure. Just like the exagerated baloney attributed to Jesus in the Bible doesn't reflect what was a simple preacher man from 2000 years ago.
Exodus 34:1-10: 1Meanwhile the people got to see that Moses was taking a long time about coming down from the mountain. So the people congregated themselves about Aaron and said to him: “Get up, make for us a god who will go ahead of us, because as regards this Moses, the man who led us up out of the land of Egypt, we certainly do not know what has happened to him.”2At this Aaron said to them: “Tear off the gold earrings that are in the ears of YOUR wives, of YOUR sons and of YOUR daughters and bring them to me.”3And all the people began tearing off the gold earrings that were in their ears and bringing them to Aaron.4Then he took [the gold] from their hands, and he formed it with a graving tool and proceeded to make it into a molten statue of a calf. And they began to say: “This is your God, O Israel, who led you up out of the land of Egypt.”
5When Aaron got to see this, he went to building an altar before it. Finally Aaron called out and said: “There is a festival to Jehovah tomorrow.”
9And Jehovah went on to say to Moses: “I have looked at this people and here it is a stiff‐necked people.10So now let me be, that my anger may blaze against them and I may exterminate them, and let me make you into a great nation.”
This passage teaches us that God disapproves mixing his worship with paganism. So "Christians" that call them self by Christians are in fact fake Christians, they as we'll have mixed the worship o the god sun with Jesus!
You had one part right: "Christians are in fact fake"
I am Christian and for the record my husband is an atheist, my best friend is an atheist and I do not claim that I have proof to back up my opinion on my faith. I don't mind being an "artificial" Christian though, I have an artificial Christmas tree so..y'know it's not so bad.
Anti-Claus came early this year and stripped all the copper out of my neighbor's new house.
If only UPS and FedEx could dress up as Santa Claus and elves and make their deliveries in the late dark so the trucks are hard to see.
Now we can all argue about santa claus now.
I believe that once proof of Santa Clause was published by CNN, a scientific proof that God is was apropriate. In this manner we may reach the spiritually impoverished.
Claus, Claus, Claus, Claus, Claus, Claus, Claus, Claus, Claus, Claus, Claus, Claus, Claus.
"a scientific proof that God is was apropriate"
What scientific proof would that be exactly? Did it totally fall on deaf ears when it was explained to you before that if there was sufficient evidence for your imaginary friend we would not be dismissing it?
Nicholas was real.
Santa Claus is not.
Why can't you differentiate between the two?
Oh, yeah, this is also an opinion piece...do you really believe Santa is going to come down your chimney tomorrow night?
The proof that Relativity is real and the Photon is real are an identical set of photographs of an eclipse; where light is deflected by 0.86 degrees. The Nobel Committee awarded Einstein the Nobel for the photon, based in the absurd notion that light has mass.
Absurd, but true. I love the juxtaposition of the terms light and mass. Did you know that gravity has gravity, John?
Um...no....proof that relativity is real was confirmed numerous times and under different experiments. In one a jet carrying an cesium atomic clock was flown around the world and then compared to one that remained stationary. Initially they were syncronized and after the flight the one that travelled was lagging behind. The moving clock experienced time slow down.
There are clocks in operation now that could run measurably slower on a lower floor of the same building due to the increase in gravity. Another relativistic effect.
The fact that GPS works is proof of relativity.
JJ- GPS is a Time based set of state equations coupled to a sattelite constellation using the Jacobian to solve for Time; having nothing to do with Relativity.
The clock on the satellites must be continually updated to make up for the time shift relative to the Earth. If this didn't occur they would become useless within hours.
JJ- GPS Time is not relative to earth time and I suggest to you that low earth orbit is very little different from Earth itself with respect to Time. The state equations are based in orbital mechanics and the speed of light; light having no mass is not Relativistic. Remember that Gravity is mass bending Time and not some local time deviation. Perhaps you have rad too many comic books.
Santa Calus is real. This must be quite a shock to the Athiests.
Nobody ever denied that Nicholas wasn't ever alive.
Calus was a planet in the Calus system of the Inner Rim Territories. I guess Santa Calus was in the southwestern part of that planet.
Atheists, atheists, atheistsatheists, atheistsatheists, atheists.
While Saint Nicholas was likely a real person, "Santa Claus", of the north pole, flying reindeer, breaking and entering through the chimney variety is a fictional character based on St. Nick.
Does this twerp always write like this, or do you think someone slipped a little booze in grandpa's egg nog?
@TTTPS (the secure version of TTTP),
Unless, of course, one is claiming to be the athiest of all the athy folks around.
I am not one to harp on typos, John but you wrote "Santa Calus"...and I looked and thought it said "Santa Callus". Too funny.
Amazing how myths evolve, isn't it?
I wonder if the Mormons include the planet Calus in their little world. . .
Not really, there is nothing strange about the story of Saint Nicholas, unlike the rest of the story's in the Bible.
Socrates- Einstein never received a Nobel for Relativity, but using the identical photographs of an eclipse he sold the mathematical contrivance of the Photon to the Nobel Committee by claiming light has mass; an histerical joke on them.
What is "histerical"? Historical comedy?
Joan- works for me.
Did John P. Tarver but his foot in his mouth by posting what he did or did it end going into some other orifice?
Relativity and Quantum Mechanics require a sentient being outside the universe to make the universe real. The existance of God has been a scientific proof since 1927. The rel question is, do any of these theologians have contact with God?
If this were the case, no-one would be questioning your imaginary friends existence.
Truth- The Nobel Committee has yet to accept Relativity as a Theory, so fools like yourself can continue to be.
If God is personal then why doesn't he reveal the outcome of this theory as booming voice from heaven?
Socrates- Tesla had the sort of mind where ideas just came to him, but I never heard that Einstein had that sort of thought process. I notice you use the name of a child molester as your handle, nice choice.
Could be my voice the sheepies here in their heads, I chat them up from time to time just for laughs. Thanks to you all for celebrating my birthday on the 25th, have a Merry Mithramas Day, eat, drink and as HS would say stay car*nal.
But aren't you presenting an ad hominem argument? Is it possible that I could be a different Socrates? If I had called myself Ted would you criticize that because you assumed I was Ted Bundy the serial killer or named myself after him?
Mirtha- Human beings hear their own Ego, that has all the characteristics of Satan. I am pleased the Church chose December 25, 1 BCE, instead of May, 14 6 BCE as Christ's birth; so we can have the party without the human sacrifice.
I'm sorry, "John P. Tarver", but "God" is an element of mythology. By "1927", I am assuming you are referring to the "Big Bang" theory. There is insufficient data pertaining to the beginning of the universe to warrant any conclusions regarding a catalyst for life as we know it. Using my Idiomatic Expression Equivalency module (IEE), your notion that the mythological "God" is a result of scientific proof is laughable.
Wow, you call me a fool yet you are the one accepting your belief on blind faith.
You made the false claim that science has proven your imaginary friend exists. I merely pointed out that if this were the case, especially given how many Atheists accept what science has to say, we would not be questioning your imaginary friends existence.
You might want to educate yourself on what a theory is in science. The Theory of Relativity has not been granted a Noble Prize due to imperfections within it, that alone does not make it false...there is vast amounts of evidence supporting it and it is still being studied. There is not vast amounts of anything supporting your imaginary friend. If evidence for your imaginary friend were to be found and proven to be accurate, I'd reconsider my belief in it but until that happens I see no reason to.
Yet you ask Do any of these theologians have contact with God and I asked has a 'Personal' God spoken on these issues. Did you avoid to courageously answer the question by diverting the issue?
You shouldn't mock the Gods, a lump of coal for you Johnboy, Santa will obey my orders. Who in their right mind would invite you to a party?
hal- The entire MU notional hypothesis was created by the Europeans to refute Einstein's Copenhagen Observations and it failed when John Bell proved probabilities are not deterministic. The big bang is so holy to the Nobel Committee that they refused to award Einstein the Nobel for Relativity, but would allow him to defraud the Committee with the mathematical contrivance of the Photon.
As they say on Wikipedia 'Citation Needed' Is this not required to make an authoritative point these days?
"John P. Tarver", I am not making any claim for or against the "Big Bang" theory. I am illuminating your unfounded claim: "the existance of God has been a scientific proof since 1927." "God" is an element of mythology. There is insufficient data pertaining to the beginning of the universe to warrant any conclusions regarding a catalyst for life as we know it. Using my Idiomatic Expression Equivalency module (IEE), your notion that the mythological "God" has been proven scientifically laughable.
( is laughable )
@John P. Tarver,
First, the Nobel prize does not define science, merely an award for really good science, in the committee's opinion.
Second, Einstein's award, if I understand correctly, was for the "photoelectric effect," which is demonstrable and verifiable.
What's your point?
If you divide ZERO (nothingness) by INFINITY (infinite time) you get EVERYTHING (the Universe). No outside influence needed (or possible). THIS is GOD!