December 6/19, St. Nicholas
Archbishop of Myra in Lycia, the Wonderworker
Whose Relics Lie Principally in Bari, Italy
And Whose Legendary Brother Santa Claus Lives in the North Pole
It was unthinkable. Several years ago, we were celebrating the annual feast of St. Nicholas, and our priest confessed that there was not a single person in our parish whom we could wish a happy name’s day. My wife, who was pregnant at the time, turned to me and we decided then and there to start a trend that is all too common in other Orthodox and Eastern European Churches. Now, including my son, there are at least two boys named Nicholas in our parish. We are now more like the Greek family in My Big Fat Greek Wedding with every other person named Nick, Nikko, Nikki, or Nikolaki.
By the numbers, there are at least 55 saints with the name Nicholas, all related somehow to the 4th century original. How did this one archbishop grow to be so popular and well loved by people all over the world? What is the universal appeal that contributes not only to the real story of his life and works, but to all the legends swirling around him?
I found one legend particularly compelling this year in the book Polar Express and the 2004 movie based on the book. Nothing is remarkable about the plot, but the setting is absolutely enchanting to me. A boy wakes up in the middle of Christmas Eve to discover a steam engine has stopped off in front of his house and wishes to take him to the North Pole for a visit with Santa Claus. It is astonishing enough that a thing so mighty and mystical as a steam engine could stop outside your front door, but what happens next upends all kinds of standard holiday folklore. For as the Polar Express arrives at its destination, what the child passengers behold is not a cute little cottage in the mountains, but a bustling city, teaming with life and activity.
This seems to me a more fitting residence for the legend of a saint so large as to fill the world with his presence and his testimony of the work of God. Some people are bothered by the proliferation of legends and myths around the lives of saints, but I agree with my good friend and mentor G.K. Chesterton on this point:
What has happened to me has been the very reverse of what appears to be the experience of most of my friends. Instead of dwindling to a point, Santa Claus has grown larger and larger in my life until he fills almost the whole of it. It happened in this way.
As a child I was faced with a phenomenon requiring explanation. I hung up at the end of my bed an empty stocking, which in the morning became a full stocking. I had done nothing to produce the things that filled it. I had not worked for them, or made them or helped to make them. I had not even been good–far from it. And the explanation was that a certain being whom people called Santa Claus was benevolently disposed toward me. What we believed was that a certain benevolent agency did give us those toys for nothing. And, as I say, I believe it still.
I have merely extended the idea.Then I only wondered who put the toys in the stocking; now I wonder who put the stocking by the bed, and the bed in the room, and the room in the house, and the house on the planet, and the great planet in the void. Once I only thanked Santa Claus for a few dolls and crackers, now, I thank him for stars and street faces and wine and the great sea. Once I thought it delightful and astonishing to find a present so big that it only went halfway into the stocking. Now I am delighted and astonished every morning to find a present so big that it takes two stockings to hold it, and then leaves a great deal outside; it is the large and preposterous present of myself, as to the origin of which I can offer no suggestion except that Santa Claus gave it to me in a fit of peculiarly fantastic goodwill.
— G..K. Chesterton on Santa Claus
Chronia Pola! Sprasnikom! Blessed name’s day to all the nations, cities, churches, and of course people who count the good St. Nicholas as their patron and protector.