St- Nicholas

Skipping the 12 days of Christmas

It was around 200 A.D., according to St. Clement of Alexandria, that theologians in Egypt settled on May 20 as the birthday of Jesus, while others argued for dates in April and March.

This wasn't a major issue, since early Christians emphasized the Epiphany on Jan. 6, marking Christ's baptism. Then sometime before 354, Rome began celebrating the Feast of the Nativity on Dec. 25. Eastern churches kept using different dates, but the Roman custom became the norm by the end of the 4th century.

"It was all quite confusing," explained classics scholar Joe Walsh of Loyola College in Baltimore, who explores this maze during his "History of Christmas" class. "Early Christians didn't really lock in on this kind of thing, since they believed their world was going to end soon anyway."

It took time for the nativity feast to become the 12-day Christmas season. Today, Christmas has become something else altogether.

Easter traditions developed first, with Holy Week events on specific days of the week and a firm link to the Jewish Passover. A nativity date was harder to pin down and, over time, conflicting traditions created tensions. The Second Council of Tours clarified matters in 567, establishing Dec. 25 as the nativity date and Jan. 6 as Epiphany.

The council took another diplomatic step and proclaimed the 12 days between the feasts the holy season of Christmas -- the biggest party in Christendom.

This act linked believers in East and West and offered a symbolic alternative to competing pagan festivals in the marketplace. Drawing a parallel with Easter, it also made sense for a reflective season of prayer and fasting to precede Christmas. This became Advent in the West and Nativity Lent in the East.

That was then. This is now.

Walsh said his students assume that Christmas equals "The Holidays," the marketing season between Thanksgiving and Dec. 25, which is followed by a festival of returned gifts and football games. Most do not know that there is more to the 12 days of Christmas than a song about a partridge, a pear tree and other bizarre gifts.

Times change. A few generations ago, department stores stayed open until midnight on Christmas Eve, a tradition seen in many old Christmas movies.

"Why did they do that? Because people were out doing the shopping that we start doing in October," said Walsh. "The days before could get pretty intense, but that's the way things were. Christmas was still Christmas. That really didn't change until Christmas got sucked into the whole industrialized-commercialized complex that is modern life."

This happened for many reasons. The Puritan revolution in England played a major role, with its rejection of anything Catholic. Many liturgical and cultural traditions were weakened and never fully recovered, even if they were later celebrated by writers such as Charles Dickens. This had a major impact in the American colonies, where Christmas celebrations were frowned upon or in some cases banned.

At the same time, explosive growth of English cities during the industrial revolution uprooted millions of ordinary people, breaking centuries of ties binding families to churches, land, farms, shops and kin, said Walsh. Quaint traditions that united villages were hard to move to slums in London, Birmingham and Manchester. And what about New York City and the American frontier?

Modern suburbs do not have a church in a public square at the center of town. Most don't have a public square at all and the true community center is the shopping mall. While many people complain that lawyers and activists have "taken Christ out of Christmas," the truth is more complex than that. The reality is that almost everyone is skipping the 12-day Christmas season, including church people.

There is no time. There is no place. There is no season.

That could change, said Walsh.

"Whatever resistance there is going to be to what is happening to Christmas will be totally centered on people in churches, churches on both the left and the right," he said. "People in the middle are going to just go with the cultural flow. But out on the wings -- where people are really worried about the economics of all of this or the loss of all the beautiful worship traditions -- that's where Christmas might survive."

A Baptist take on St. Nicholas

The bureaucrats charged with turning Russia into a godless utopia had a December dilemma and a big part of their problem was St. Nicholas.

The early Communists needed to purge Christmas of its Savior, sacraments and beloved symbols, including this patron saint of widows and children. What they needed was a faith-free icon for a safe, secular New Year's season. Digging into pre-Christian Slavic legends they found their superman -- Father Frost.

"It's so ironic," said the Rev. James Parker III of Louisville, Ky. In order to wrest control of Christmas, "one of the things the Communists had to do was to get people to forget the real St. Nicholas. ... Here in America we've forgotten all about the real St. Nicholas because he has turned into this Santa Claus guy. It's like we're taking a different route to the same place."

It would not be unusual to hear Eastern Orthodox, Catholic or Anglican clergy voice these sentiments in the days leading to Dec. 6, the feast day of St. Nicholas, the 4th Century bishop of Myra in Asia Minor. Parker, however, is associate dean at Southern Baptist Theological Seminary. Still, he is convinced it's time for more churches -- even Southern Baptist churches -- to embrace the real St. Nicholas.

"I have often wondered how a Martian reporter would do a story on Christmas," he wrote, in a Baptist Press commentary. "If one only had the dominant cultural icons of TV, movies, news media and retail stores, my guess is that the Martian viewing audience wouldn't have a clue as to what Christmas was about.

"They might think it had something to do with snowmen or reindeer or retail store sales. And if any particular person rose to the top in the public's conscious awareness, it would be a jolly secular guy at risk for stroke or cardiac arrest who liked to dress in red and let his beard grow."

Rather than whine about what has happened to St. Nicholas, more churches need to "remythologize" this hero of the faith, said Parker.

Little solid historical information is known about Nicholas except that he was born into a wealthy family and, after the early death of his pious parents, he entered a monastery and became a bishop. Some early writers claim he participated in the Council of Nicea and, when theological debate failed, that he punched a heretic who argued that Jesus was not fully divine.

"The mental image of Santa Claus punching out Arius ... has to fundamentally change the way one would ever see Santa Claus again," said Parker. "While I might not agree with his methods, I certainly admire his passion for Christological orthodoxy."

Nicholas was imprisoned under the Emperor Diocletian, tortured and then hailed as a "confessor" because he refused to renounce his faith. He was released under Constantine and died around 350 A.D.

Another detail in accounts of his life is that Nicholas gave away his inheritance helping the poor. One famous icon shows him taking small bags of gold to parents who could not provide dowries for their daughters, which meant they could not marry. Thus, the bishop would rescue the girls from lives as slaves or prostitutes by dropping gold coins through their windows during the night. These gifts often fell into their stockings, which were hung up to dry.

This unforgettable image of was especially popular with children. Through the centuries, this story blended with other legends in other lands. The result was Father Christmas, Pere Noel and many others, including Sinter Klaas, who came with the Dutch to New York City.

Now Santa is everywhere, the smiling face on one of American culture's most popular exports -- the holiday season formerly known as Christmas.

"In the circles that I run in, people can get pretty worked up about things like this," said Parker. "These are they people who keep saying that they want to put Christ back into Christmas. So while they're doing that, why not put the real St. Nicholas back into the picture as well. He was a bishop. He cared for the poor. He was a great Christian leader who defended the faith.

"That's all good, isn't it? Wouldn't it be good to reclaim that?"