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.
Christmas exposes atheist divide on dealing with religion
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.
About this blog
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.
But this particular specimen died long before whalers became a threat. Carbon dating showed that the fossil, a left jawbone, is about 36,000 years old.
Where is Adam and Eves fossils???
Furthermore if all the world is a stage, how come we have grass and not splinters.
Carbon dating is only accurate to 16,000 years, but thanks for playing.
@John P. Tarver, wowsers. Wrong. Carbon-14 is used for dating objects of 58,000 to 62,000 years with about a 1% margin of error.
fell- Actually no, carbon 14 dating is only good to 16,000 years. Radiological dting is based in the notion that the earth is 4.5 billion years old, but I could easily reproduce that piecewise linear model based upon the assumption that the earth is 50,000 years old. After 16,000 years there is some change in the matrix; perhaps a mass extinction.
@jpt Carbon-14 (14C), also referred to as radiocarbon, is claimed to be a reliable dating method for determining the age of fossils up to 50,000 to 60,000 years.
@ John P. Tarver, " Radiological dting is based in the notion that the earth is 4.5 billion years old'
Uh... No. It isn't. Scientist don't guess the age of the earth and then have physics match their estimation. Radioisotope decay is based on the half life of the element. To find the age of the earth you need to use something with a longer half life like, rubidium-87 to strontium-87 which is about 50billion years. No doubt your cell phone uses time from an atomic clock which is based on Cesium half life decay. This isn't a controversy. It's just physics.
Feloow- Not even a little true, as the assumption that the Earth is 4.5 billion years old is the sole basis of radiological dating. So then radiological dating is proof that the people who made it up believe in the big bang. The problem with the big bang is Relativity.
As per National Geographic's Genographic project:
" DNA studies suggest that all humans today descend from a group of African ancestors who about 60,000 years ago began a remarkable journey. Follow the journey from them to you as written in your genes”.
"Adam" is the common male ancestor of every living man. He lived in Africa some 60,000 years ago, which means that all humans lived in Africa at least at that time.
Unlike his Biblical namesake, this Adam was not the only man alive in his era. Rather, he is unique because his descendents are the only ones to survive.
It is important to note that Adam does not literally represent the first human. He is the coalescence point of all the genetic diversity."
For your $199 and a DNA swab:
"Included in the markers we will test for is a subset that scientists have recently determined to be from our hominin cousins, Neanderthals and the newly discovered Denisovans, who split from our lineage around 500,000 years ago. As modern humans were first migrating out of Africa more than 60,000 years ago, Neanderthals and Denisovans were still alive and well in Eurasia. It seems that our ancestors met, leaving a small genetic trace of these ancient relatives in our DNA. With Geno 2.0, you will learn if you have any Neanderthal or Denisovan DNA in your genome."
What we do know: (from the fields of astrophysics, nuclear physics, geology and the history of religion)
1. The Sun will burn out in 3-5 billion years so we have a time frame.
2. Asteroids continue to circle us in the nearby asteroid belt.
3. One wayward large rock/comet and it is all over in a blast of permanent winter.
4. There are enough nuclear weapons to do the same job.
5. Most contemporary NT exegetes do not believe in the Second Coming so apparently there is no concern about JC coming back on an asteroid or cloud of raptors/rapture.
6. All stars will eventually extinguish as there is a limit to the amount of hydrogen in the universe. When this happens (100 trillion years?), the universe will go dark. If it does not collapse and recycle, the universe will end.
7. Super, dormant volcanoes off the coast of Africa and under Yellowstone Park could explode catalytically at any time ending life on Earth.
Bottom line: our apocalypse will start between now and 3-5 billion CE. The universe apocalypse, 100 trillion years?
More details from National Geographic's Genographic project: https://www3.nationalgeographic.com/genographic
"Our spe-cies is an African one: Africa is where we first ev-olved, and where we have spent the majority of our time on Earth. The earliest fos-sils of recognizably modern Ho-mo sapiens appear in the fossil record at Omo Kibish in Ethiopia, around 200,000 years ago. Although earlier fossils may be found over the coming years, this is our best understanding of when and approximately where we originated.
According to the genetic and paleontological record, we only started to leave Africa between 60,000 and 70,000 years ago. What set this in motion is uncertain, but we think it has something to do with major climatic shifts that were happening around that time—a sudden cooling in the Earth’s climate driven by the onset of one of the worst parts of the last Ice Age. This cold snap would have made life difficult for our African ancestors, and the genetic evidence points to a sharp reduction in population size around this time. In fact, the human population likely dropped to fewer than 10,000. We were holding on by a thread.
Once the climate started to improve, after 70,000 years ago, we came back from this near-extinction event. The population expanded, and some intrepid explorers ventured beyond Africa. The earliest people to colonize the Eurasian landma-ss likely did so across the Bab-al-Mandab Strait separating present-day Yemen from Djibouti. These early beachcombers expanded rapidly along the coast to India, and reached Southeast Asia and Australia by 50,000 years ago. The first great foray of our species beyond Africa had led us all the way across the globe."
@Reality, Great info, but probably wasted on @Tarver. He seems quite confident in his ignorance. I enjoyed it thoroughly though.
M-y wife and I recently signed up for 23.anadem, which analyzes a sample of ones DNA. It is useful for identifying potential health risks, and tracing an.cestry. My own ancestry, through the genes, was mun.dane My wife had a remarkable ge.netic make up, which includes 3percent gen.etic material which is N-eanderthal. She is Ja-panese, with Sp-anish, French, Sl-avic, and South American na-tive (think Inca) background. But several thousand years ago (note this; it must have occurred well before 10,000 years ago which creationists believe was about the time that g-od created man), a very distant ancestor of hers m-ated with a N-eanderthal. I know this is hard to believe, it is hard for me to believe, but this is true, and should cause some of you to think, as it has caused me to do. For those who wonder what this cross looks like – she is beautiful
as usual i enjoy the comments more than the article itself. Awaken yee men of America and set forth your beliefs and non beliefs and force them upon those who disagree with you lest there be others who disagree with you and your truthful unbending enlightenment of the absolute truth of life
Does anyone know the difference between an atheist and a fermenting bag of manure?
Why yes, Guadaloopy. Most bags of manure come from the Bible belt. Most atheists do not.
You won't get arrested if someone discovers a bag of manure buried in your back yard.
The manure has a use.
So the bag of gold fell down the chimney, bounced off the ashes, ricoheted off the fireplace wall, traveled upwards and out into the room, made a left turn – in *mid-air*, mind you – and landed *inside* a hanging stocking left to dry.
That my friend, is one magic coin.
Santa is god. Think about it, there's no proof, yet people "Want to Believe" and make up fanciful tales. If you don't believe, you're missing out. Interesting.
Christmas should be about Jesus not about Santa Claus
In my house, it was always about both.
We'd gather around the tree and Dad would say, "Now let's see what Santa brought you".
I held up my shiny new prize and said, "A race car set? But I wanted a bike".
And Dad would yell, "Jesus, can't you kids be happy with anything!?".
Ah, good times.
Silentboy, that made me laugh!
Ah, sweet memories...
I wonder what my Dad is going to get me for Christmas?
It's not me but Santa. You spent too much time reading about science this year and not reading your Bible, so you will get COAL and 50 lashes with the whip!
1-1/2 c White Sugar
3/4 c Brown Sugar
1/2 c evaporated Milk
Combine and cook to soft ball stage (240 degrees Fahrenheit) and add 1/2
stick of margarine and 1 c pecans broken into pieces
Place pan in “ice bath bowl” and beat until thick enough to be dropped
from a spoon onto waxed paper. You want about 3 inch circles or so.
And as always, when I'm on this blog, I get hungry.
Dear 8 pounds 6 ounces... new born infant Jesus,don't even know a word yet.
Wow, you know how much Baby Jesus weighed?? O.o
Atheism is a myth, therefore God exist.
Poe! How are you?
Fe Fi Fo Fum I smell the blood of an internet troll
There is an afterlife after all! To deny one living life after one dies is filled with lordly distrainment. Are we nothing but made up of molecular machinery? Who are those running and operating these machines? Are they not more than self perpetuating organisms of the mechanical nurturing? When will molecular scientists finally understand the molecular make ups of mechanized brilliancies needing operators and mechanics of such machines? I know, I know. I'm a speculating umbilical chord reaching its stretched ends!
Dawkins already presented the idea of an afterlife of sorts from a genetic standpoint in 1978 in his book, The Selfish Gene. Genes replicate and continue to pass down stored information from one generation to the next. Ideas (which he refers to as Memes) exist as a kind of afterlife. I don't believe many scientist or atheists would deny an afterlife. It's an afterlife of full consciousness that is a stretch.
Free- Dawkins believes evolution is the means to species, even though only 1% of species exist from the last mass extinction barrier. Dawkins plays folls like you instead of blind shhep Christians the other preacers do.
Not sure what a "foll" is, but there's nothing inaccurate about what I've said. Right? If so, point it out.
Genetic replication is to me, molecular mechanical contrivances created by inner beings of the sub-molecular varieties. Even genes need a creator. Genetic manipulations are written via the genetic blueprints established eons ago when these atomized inner beings saw fit to give celestial based life of mechanical means a foothold upon any terrestrial planet capable to support celestial bio-molecular mechanisms eventually to evolve giving rise to increasingly higher orders of cellular mechanized life formations toward such cellular based life as us.
@lionlylamb, if the evidence supported your theory, I'd be fine accepting it.
GodFreeNow, wrote, " I don't believe many scientist or atheists would deny an afterlife. It's an afterlife of full consciousness that is a stretch."
The 'afterlife' (to my brain yard of malleable sensations) is when our conscience is reeled back into its body's inwardness to become that which is or has been formulated long before we even became a living celestial ent ity. Our conscience is reborn after death onto a realm of the atomized cosmology. Where after our death are we reborn is a question I cannot truly be assured of. Certainly our afterlife is first taken in upon our physical body, but as to where our spiritual conscience goes after there is no more consumption given to the dead body; is yet for me to be understood. Am I making a statement you or anyone can understand?
GodFreeNow et al,
1. The inner cosmology of the atomized realms. Are these realms not the first realms conceived in the grand schemes of cosmology?
2. The outer cosmology of the celestial realms. Did not this realm become conceived only after the inner cosmological realm near finalization was made nearing a completion?
3. The cellular cosmology of the living realms. Did this living realm of cosmological matter come about by sheer coincidence or was there a cosmological order for the living realms of cellular cosmology to become an ever evolving realm ending upon these celestial shores as being mankind?
@lionlylamb, Theories without evidences are just speculations. I make it a habit to avoid those.
be it Santa or be it Micky, no humans have brought more joy or happiness among kids than these real or imaginary characters, so what is important to us, if they really existed or their contribution to rich or poor, black or white, sick or health kids, goons?
Happy festivities to all this end of year jubilations!
I see gods and goddesses as living beings of such extreme smallness all living out their yes, mortal lives deeply seeded within each and every living celestial cellular based life. Such celestial based life was once found capable of evolutionary developments via sub-atomized life. All mannerisms of the living does lay upon any planet found able of sustaining such celestial based life thru the inner abilities of mortal gods and goddesses living upon the atomized realms of cosmological orders of cellular divisions within all celestial life e n t I t I e s.
"Christians" are "Christ's Mass," hence the name "Christmas!"
MERRY CHRISTMAS EVERYONE!!!
Life goes on. Happy for that.
... found inscribed on the back of the great stone Mayan calendar...
If you go back even farther, you'll find that the myth of Santa Claus or St. Nicholas is based on a pagan god that would eat children that were bad.
This article is about the factual basis of Saint Nicolas as a real living human being, but thanks for playing.
This OPINION piece is but one part of a larger myth surrounding Santa Claus, Mr. Tarver, but your imput has been noted.
Pagan roots? 5 surprising Christmas facts
When you gather around the Christmas tree or stuff goodies into a stocking, you're taking part in traditions that stretch back thousands of years — long before Christianity entered the mix.
Christ's birthday was placed on December 25 by the Catholic Church to usurp the Holiday of Ba'al and his many knock offs. The astrological even described in Luke occured May 14, 6 BCE, at the birth of Christ; Jupiter apearing as a morning star eclipsed by the moon that morning. Besides that, Harod the Great died in 4 BCE.
You're fun, Mr. Tarver!
What was this about Harold the Great?
It is 'vial' not 'vile'
An informative article- enjoyed.
There is no more useless appendage to humanity than atheism. Twice as useless in the season of light and enlightenment.
Be kind to the poor, for you will be judged.
I extend my unpaired midline structure in your general direction.
I wouldn't exactly call these people useless:
I will have to admit that the lighting in WalMart is pretty adequate this time of year.
Mr. Mars, is that anything like "I fart in your general direction?"
Akira- Tarver used his rights under the Treaty of Versaille to declare himself French in 1774, as a means to fund the American Revolution. My imitator is correct in his reference.
Mr. Tarver, I suspect that your imitator will understand my reference, even if you don't.
And many atheists would say the same thing about religion. So you loose.
El Gato, Do enlighten us with your carefully considered reasons for that statement.
Atheists are liars so those of faith always win over them, it is not even a close contest. Atheists are of no human value.
Oops, Guadaloopy. Looks like God lost out the recent Intelligence Squared debates:
Poor Dinesh D'Souza; poor Ian Hutchinson
Better luck next time, Guadaloopy. . .
The world was a much better place 50 years ago, when more people had God in there life, and everyday life was not always about me me me me.or i want i want i want. most people in our world just think about them selves and dont give a damn about the people around them. so many peole are so self centered, and its truely disturbing.
OK, so now it's all about you you you. What exactly do you want?
God is not and never has been necessary for living a good and moral life.
The world was stupid 50 years ago. The early 1960s were crap, and the 1950s were even worse. Sure, there was Johnny Cash, but there were also Jim Crow laws on the books. Nothing could make that worth it.
Wanting to return to the days of segregation, low nutritional value in food and the threat of nuclear war? Want to go back to the days when smoking was "healthy" according to doctors, and medical treatments were scarce? Want to go back to the days pre-internet, cell phone/iphone. Sounds wonderful.
The culture of greed has more to do with increased corporate power than decreased belief in imaginary friends.