Father Constantine White was ready when his young son asked the big December question: "Is Santa Claus real?"
Instead of answering "yes" or "no," the Orthodox priest responded with another question: "Well, what is the name of our church?"
That would be St. Nicholas Cathedral, named after the 4th Century bishop of Myra in Asia Minor. Nicholas has for centuries been one of Eastern Orthodoxy's most beloved saints, the patron of orphans, merchants, sailors and all those in distress. His feast day is Dec. 6.
St. Nicholas is a saint. The church insists that saints live on, in a heavenly "cloud of witnesses." So, yes, there is a St. Nicholas.
"I tell people who are touring our sanctuary: 'We never have to tell our children that there is no St. Nicholas,' " said White, dean of the Orthodox Church in America's cathedral in Washington, D.C. "There is, in fact, a St. Nicholas and he gives us his love and his prayers. These gifts are much more precious than anything people get at a mall."
The secular superman called Santa Claus will be nowhere in sight, when parishioners at St. Nicholas Cathedral gather for weekend services honoring their patron. They will chant ancient prayers and send clouds of incense into a small, but glorious, five-story limestone vault. As in most Orthodox parishes, and some Eastern Rite Catholic churches, the feast day will be moved to the closest Sunday.
The hymns are solemn, befitting a shepherd known for fasting and self-sacrifice. These lines are typical: "With what songs shall we praise the holy bishop Nicholas? O holy father Nicholas, Christ has shown you to be a model of faith. Your humility inspired all your flock. You are known as the protector of widows and orphans."
The sanctuary's interior is covered with iconography, the work of Russians who began working in the fall of 1991 and finished three years later. The main images are of Christ triumphant and of Mary with the infant Jesus. The Russian saints soaring over the choir include martyrs huddled behind barbed wire in Soviet prison camps. The north wall features six rows of large icons -- 34 images in all -- depicting the life of St. Nicholas, the Wonderworker.
The ninth scene is called "Charity of St. Nicholas" and shows the bishop visiting the home of a poor family, carrying a bag of gold. As the story goes, the father could not provide dowries for his three daughters, which meant they could not marry. Nicholas rescued them from slavery or prostitution by dropping gold coins through a window. The gifts fell into stockings, hung up to dry during the night.
This story is actually quite logical, said White. The church at Myra recorded that Nicholas was born into a wealthy family and apparently gave most of his inheritance to the poor. He participated in the Council of Nicea and, when theological debate was not enough, reportedly punched the heretic Arius, who argued that Jesus was not fully divine. Nicholas was imprisoned under the Emperor Diocletian and released under Constantine. He died on Dec. 6, 343 A.D.
The image of the white-haired saint in red robes, bringing gifts in the night, grew in popularity through the centuries -- especially with children.
Sailors spread his fame along the European coast. Over time, traditions linked to St. Nicholas blended with other legends. The result: Father Christmas, Kriss Kringle, Pere Noel and many others, including Sinter Klaas, who came with the Dutch to the American settlement that became the media capitol called New York City. Then poet Clement C. Moore, cartoonist Thomas Nast, Coca-Cola and legions of ad agencies got a hold of him.
But the true home of St. Nicholas is the season of Nativity Lent, or Advent, which precedes the 12 days of Christmas.
"St. Nicholas is supposed to be the very image of charity and concern for others, especially the poor," said White. "There is some link there to gift-giving, but nothing that resembles what has happened with Santa Claus. I can guarantee you this, any man in a red suit who shows up at this church around Christmas is going to be dressed like a bishop."