Man of Mystery: St. Nick

Every year, members of the Greek Orthodox parish in Flushing, N.Y., gather after sundown on Dec. 5 to honor their patron saint.

A throng of nearly 1,000 fills the sanctuary for this vespers service, as the faithful remember a man known for his self-sacrificing love of children and the poor, as well as his determined defense of Christianity. After sunrise the rites begin again, because Dec. 6 is the feast day of St. Nicholas.

Millions of shoppers would know this saint's name, but few would recognize his face in Orthodox icons.

"One thing that we know about St. Nicholas, because all accounts of his life mention it, is that he was a faster," said Father John Lardas of St. Nicholas parish. "He regularly went without food, both to pray and to identify with the poor." In early paintings, he noted, St. Nicholas is "tall and thin and he has a somewhat gaunt, determined look. ... It's hard to imagine him as a pudgy, fat man saying `ho, ho, ho.' "

How a saint evolved into the crown prince of shopping malls is a long story, with major roles played by everyone from the Norse god Wodan to the Coca-Cola company.

Today, Santa is the jolly driver on a cultural steamroller called "The Holidays" and described in terms of wonder, magic, goodness, generosity and faith -- a warm, but vague, creed.

Young actress Mara Wilson summed up his role in popular culture while promoting the 1994 remake of "Miracle on 34th Street," a Christmas classic. "I think this movie is about having faith in someone who an take care of you -- like your mother, your father, or Santa Claus, or the tooth fairy, or God," she said.

Few details are known about Nicholas, who was born into a wealthy family in Patara, in what is now Turkey. He was elected bishop of Myra at age 30 and apparently gave most of his inheritance to the poor. He was listed as a participant in the famous Council of Nicea and, when theological arguments were not enough, he reportedly punched a bishop who insisted that Jesus was not fully divine. Nicholas died on Dec. 6, 343 A.D.

The bishop was beloved for his good works and many said he performed miracles. In a typical story, he rescued three girls from slavery or prostitution. Their father was too poor to provide dowries, which meant they could not marry. Nicholas responded by dropped gold coins through a window during the night. The bags were said to have fallen into stockings that had been hung up to dry.

Clearly, Nicholas quickly became associated with children, wishes and gift-giving. But for centuries he remained a Christian figure and a crucial element in St. Nicholas traditions was a concern for poor and vulnerable children.

Nicholas also was the patron saint of sailors, who spread the saint's fame along the European coast. Over time, St. Nicholas lore blended with legends in other lands. The result: Father Christmas, Kriss Kringle, Pere Noel and many others, including Sinter Klaas, who came with the Dutch to the settlement that became the media capitol called New York City.

Historians stress that the 1823 poem "A Visit From St. Nicholas," written by Clement C. Moore, a classics scholar and Episcopal leader, played a pivotal role in creating St. Nick. At this point, Nicholas "is no longer a Christian ... figure," said folklorist Tom Flynn, in an Arts & Entertainment Network interview. "He's much more pagan. That just, almost, comes out of thin air."

Today, it's almost impossible to see the saint's image in the towering figure of Santa, said Father George Passias, senior pastor at St. Nicholas parish. There is a big difference between saying that Santa Claus is real and passing on the values of St. Nicholas.

"Let's look at Santa Claus," he said. "We have Santa Claus, who is all over the place, standing there and telling people, `Buy this for yourself,' ... `Get this for someone you love,' and what have you. It has nothing to do with need, it has nothing to do with holiness."