Thursday, December 06, 2007

The Adventures of Santa Claus

Today is St. Nicholas' Day, the day Christians (well, Catholics at least) honour St. Nicholas of Myra, today more widely known as Santa Claus.

Many Christians today believe that Santa Claus is evil, a ploy of the Enemy to distract from the real meaning of Christmas. I believe those people are wrong. Saint Nicholas was himself a Christian, and everything he did, he did for the glory of God.

The following essay is the result of three years of of sporadic research into the topic, and I hope gives an accurate and entertaining recounting of St. Nicholas' life. Please note that there is very little hard evidence for any of this -- most of the ancient biographies we draw information on Nicholas' life from were written centuries after his death. All we know for sure was that he did exist roughly around the the time the biographies said he did, and that he was in fact the bishop of Myra, and that he was beloved by the people. Everything else may or may not have happened.

Still, I've tried to accurately portray Nicholas as he is described in his biographies. I hope you'll find it interesting, at least.

The Adventures of Santa Claus

For fifty years, bloody civil war and raiding barbarians from the savage lands to the north and east had ravaged the mighty Roman Empire, leaving it on the verge of collapse. Emperor after Emperor had risen and fallen, their reigns lasting hardly more than two or three years each, falling in regular succession to assassination or death on the battlefield. Inflation wreaked havoc on the economy, and even the rich could not help but feel it. The fall of the Empire seemed nigh. It was into this uncertain world that a child named Nicholas was born in the little Greek colony town of Patara, on the southern coast of what is now Turkey. Nicholas's parents were wealthy, but while the little town of Patara may not have seen war directly, its effects could be felt by all.

A few years after Nicholas's birth, in A.D. 285, a soldier named Diocletian rose to the throne in yet another bloody civil war. At first there was little difference between him and the short-lived emperors who had gone before. He fought war after war all over the Empire, stamping out insurgencies and fighting off the barbarian hordes. He paid little attention to the growing population of Christians in the Empire, of which Nicholas and his parents were a part. Nicholas's parents were probably grateful for that inattention; it was hard enough being a Christian in a pagan Empire. It had been two hundred years since the horrors of Nero's lunatic reign, when Christians were rounded up and fed to the lions, but such memories fade slowly. As time went on, Diocletian's reign seemed to get better and better, as enemies were vanquished and peace and stability slowly returned to the Empire.

Stability did not return easily, though. Times were tough. Nicholas was a young man when his parents died and left him their fortune, enough for him to live comfortably. Others were not so well off. There was a certain Christian man, as the story goes, who had been rich, but who had lost his fortune in the chaotic times the Empire had just come through. His three daughters were of marriageable age, but he had no money to provide dowries, to secure good marriages for them. If he could not give them good marriages, they would be sold into slavery or worse. So the man prayed. Nicholas heard of his troubles, but being a shy lad, he would have been too embarrassed to simply walk up to the man and hand him money. So, late one night, he snuck up to the man's window, tossed a bag of coins inside, and fled. The man and his daughters awoke the next morning to a wonderful surprise, and it wasn't long before the man's first daughter was married, using the money for a dowry. Nicholas did the same thing for the second daughter, who was also wed. When it came time for the third daughter to be wed, the man had become anxious to find out who his mysterious benefactor was. He stayed up and kept watch, and caught Nicholas in the act. He thanked him profusely, and Nicholas was embarrassed. He told the man to thank God alone for these gifts, and not to tell people what he'd done. It was useless, of course -- the man told everyone he knew, and soon everyone knew of Nicholas's generosity. In fact, people began to realise that there had been other anonymous donations to the poor throughout the city, and rumours spread that it was Nicholas, doling out his late parents’ fortune.

A few years later (probably urged on by his uncle, who was a bishop), Nicholas decided to go on a pilgrimage to Egypt and the Holy Land. According to legend, the first night of the voyage he had a dream warning of danger. He told the sailors that a storm was coming, but God would protect them. Sure enough, a storm whipped up and the soldiers feared for their lives. One of them fell from the rigging and died. Nicholas prayed, and the storm subsided. He then prayed for the dead man, trusting God, and the man was revived. The sailors were astonished. Nicholas, probably, was embarrassed by the attention.

Under his uncle's tutelage, Nicholas grew into a wise and intelligent man of God. When the bishop of nearby Myra died, it was Nicholas who was chosen to replace him. He proved a capable leader, well-loved by the people of his city. When famine came to Myra, he managed to negotiate the purchase of grain from ships bound for Alexandria in Egypt. He began to oppose the nearby pagan temple of Artemis, and the evil spirits that resided within. He became famous for his help to sailors and seafarers.

Meanwhile, Diocletian had brought a hard peace to the Empire. By the time A.D. 300 rolled around, Diocletian had driven back the Germanic invaders from across the Danube and Rhine rivers, stopped the Persian invasions in Syria and Palestine, and squashed the various civil wars and political rivals that had sprung up within the Empire. He had instituted the Tetrarchy, a system of four co-emperors ruling over various regions of the Empire, consisting of two senior emperors and two vice emperors. Diocletian chose the Eastern part of the Empire to rule himself, along with his vice emperor, fellow soldier Galerius, leaving the West to his friend Maximian and his vice emperor, Constantius Chlorus. In an effort to enforce unity in the Empire, Diocletian borrowed an idea from some of the Middle Eastern kingdoms and declared himself not only Emperor, but Dominus et deus: Lord and God. Emperor worship, which had been tolerated before, was now officially the state religion. People who entered his presence were required to lie prostrate on the ground before him, and never to look at him in the eye.

Diocletian might have been content to leave it at that, but his scheming and self-serving vice-emperor Galerius had other ideas. Galerius convinced him that these Christians, who obstinately refused to worship the Emperor, were a risk and a threat, and should be dealt with. In A.D. 302, in a council held at the capitol city of Nicomedia, the two resolved to suppress Christianity throughout the Empire. And so began the last and greatest persecution of the Christian Church.

The cathedral of Nicomedia was torn down. An edict was issued, "to tear down the churches to the foundations and to destroy the Sacred Scriptures by fire; and commanding also that those who were in honourable stations should be degraded if they persevered in their adherence to Christianity." Nicholas was rounded up along with other bishops, presbyters, and deacons throughout the Empire, and they were beaten and tortured in an attempt to force them to sacrifice to pagan gods. Soon even the common Christians were being arrested along with the clergy, and once a whole town was massacred because they declared themselves Christians. Even Nero's mad attacks seemed light compared to this.

Eventually, in the year 305, senior Emperors Diocletian and Maximinian both retired to live by the seashore and grow cabbages. Maximinian was not particularly ready to give up his power like that, but Diocletian convinced him it was for the best, to make sure of a smooth transfer of power, and to avoid the brutal civil wars of the past. In the East, evil vice-Emperor Galerius was promoted to be Eastern senior Emperor, with his equally crooked nephew Maximinius Daia as vice-Emperor. Under Galerius’s direction, the persecution of the Christians continued with ruthless fervour. In the West, meanwhile, the good-hearted vice-Emperor Constantius Chlorus was promoted to be Western senior Emperor, and Galerius managed to get his faithful servant Severus appointed as Western vice-Emperor. Unlike Galerius in the East, Constantius put an end to the persecution of Christians in the West as soon as he became senior Emperor.

Things lasted like that for all of a year, until AD 306, when brave Constantius died while fighting a war in the far northern territory of Britain. Constantius’ son, Constantine, who was as beloved by the troops as his father, was declared Emperor by those troops. Word got to Galerius in the East, and he was reluctantly forced to proclaim Constantine as vice-Emperor in the West, for fear of the army rebelling against him. However, he promoted his servant Severus to senior Emperor in the West, hoping to control the entire Empire in this way.

From there, the Roman Empire descended into the grip of civil war. An upstart, Maxentius, son of retired senior Emperor Maximinian, was appointed Emperor by the Roman Senate and took over Italy. Severus marched out to do battle with Maxentius, but was betrayed by his own army and handed over to Maxentius, and executed. Licinius, a close friend of Galerius, was appointed as Severus’ replacement as senior emperor of the Western Empire. Fearful of what had happened to Severus, he made no move to attack Maxentius.

Three years passed. Galerius, suffering from a debilitating illness and under pressure from the legitimate emperors of the West, Licinius and Constantine, passed an edict proclaiming the end of the persecution of Christians. A month later he died from his gruesome illness, writhing in agony.

With the death of Galerius, Eastern vice-emperor Maximinius Daia seized his uncle’s old lands and claimed the entire Eastern Empire for himself. He once again started up the persecution of Christians, trying to secure his hold on the territory. Western senior emperor Licinius met with Maximinius Daia and forced a treaty with him, dividing the Eastern Empire between them.

Maximinius Daia was not happy with this arrangement, and secretly allied himself with Maxentius, the usurper in Rome. In 312, Constantine marched south to do battle with Maxentius. While he was doing this, he had a dream where he was commanded to put the mark of the cross on the shields of his soldiers. He did, and he defeated Maxentius in battle, ending the reign of the usurper and taking back Italy. Constantine attributed his victory to Christ, and became a Christian. Maximinius Daia, angry at the death of his secret ally, went to war with Licinius and Constantine in 313. Licinius defeated and killed him, and once again called an end to the persecution of Christians, though he remained pagan himself.

The Roman Empire was now divided between only two emperors: Constantine in the West and Licinius in the East. It wasn’t long, only the next year in fact, before Constantine and Licinius went to war, vying for sole control of the Empire. Constantine defeated Licinius in battle, but his forces were so weakened by the battle that he could not truly claim victory. Two years later they fought again, and in 317 they agreed to a truce. Licinius was allowed to keep his throne, but he had to surrender land to Constantine and make other concessions.

There was peace for a few years. Then, in 320, Licinius once again began to turn against the Christians, passing laws restricting their activities, such as forcing them to worship outside city limits, among other things. Constantine could not have been happy, but did nothing. Then, the next year in 321, Constantine chased some barbarians across the border and into Licinius’ territory. Licinius claimed that the treaty had been broken, and went to war with Constantine. Constantine struck back hard, and this time he defeated Licinius utterly. In 324, Constantine became sole emperor of the entire Roman Empire.

One of Constantine’s first acts was to free all his fellow Christians who had been unjustly imprisoned. From the depths of the Roman dungeons a little known middle-aged bishop of a small coastal town returned into the daylight. It was a different world which Nicholas returned to; much had changed since he’d been imprisoned twenty years ago. No longer were Christians hunted down in the streets, instead, for the first time they were an officially recognised religion, and the Emperor was one of them. It must have seemed a miracle. However, not all was well. A new sect had arisen within Christianity, led by a man named Arius, who denied that Jesus was one with God, but rather was a separate god himself. It was heresy. Nicholas returned to his city of Myra and began to preach against this insidious error. As one biographer said "Thanks to the teaching of St. Nicholas, the metropolis of Myra alone was untouched by the filth of the Arian heresy, which it firmly rejected as a death-dealing poison."

In A.D. 325 Constantine, having been a Christian now for 13 years, called a conference of bishops from all over the Empire (and some from outside the Empire) to the city of Nicea, to deal with this problem of Arianism. Constantine himself did not really understand the difference between the two positions, but seemed to favour the Arians. The council included many of the most famous Christians of the era, and one little bishop from Myra: Nicholas. Legend says that when Arius was presenting his position, Nicholas got so angry at hearing this heresy that he got up and slapped him in the face, knocking him over. For this breach of decorum, he was ejected from the council. The council finally condemned Arianism as heresy, and proclaimed the tenets of Christianity in the Nicean Creed, still recognised today by most as an essential definition of true Christianity.

It was at some point during this time that the lifelong enmity between Bishop Nicholas and the nearby pagan temple of Artemis came to a head. Nicholas feared that many Christians would fall back into their old habits and offer sacrifices to Artemis for protection. With Emperor Constantine on the side of the Christians, Nicholas felt that now was the time to act. He stormed the temple, driving out its demons in the name of God, sending them fleeing howling before him. He tore the temple down, even uprooted the foundations, and went on to destroy other pagan temples in the area. The fear of God fell upon all who witnessed or heard about it.

There were further miracles attributed to Nicholas. A woman, excited over the prospect of going to see her arch-bishop, left her baby in a tub of water over the fire. When she finally remembered, she begged Nicholas to pray for her baby, and when she returned home, she found the baby unharmed, playing in the boiling water. In another instance, a child who was possessed by a demon and who was violent and uncontrollable was brought to Nicholas, who drove the demon out and healed the child. He drove out many demons in God's name, and healed many sick people.

One of the more famous legends about Nicholas was said to have happened as he was on his way to the council at Nicea. He stayed one night at an inn, where the innkeeper served meat, even though there was a food shortage everywhere, with almost no meat to be found. When the innkeeper placed the meat in front of Nicholas, he jumped up and shouted "You are a murderer and this is the meat of children you have killed! Show me where their remains are!" The terrified innkeeper lead Nicholas to the barrel where he kept his salted meat, and Nicholas prayed to God. The pieces of meat swirled and reattached themselves to one another, and three young boys stood up from the barrel. The innkeeper was understandably shocked, not to mention terrified that his crime had been uncovered, and converted to Christianity right then and there.

While Constantine lived, Christians and the Empire lived in peace. Still, there was trouble here and there, and Constantine sent his generals to deal with it. At one point, three generals and their troops sailed in to the port at Myra, and stayed, waiting for clear weather to continue on. The troops went into the city to buy food, and soon began arguing with the vendors. Fighting broke out, and it looked like a riot was about to occur. Bishop Nicholas hurried out to the port and confronted the generals, who said that they were on a peaceful mission to Phrygia in the East. Nicholas replied: "How is it, if you are to bring peace, that you are stirring up unrest in our town?" He told the generals what was happening, and they hurried out to reign in their soldiers and make amends.

On their way back to the city, Nicholas and the generals encountered some people weeping. The people said that the city’s corrupt chief judge, Eustathios, had condemned three innocent men to death. "If you had been in the city, these innocent men would not be handed over to death,” said the townspeople. Nicholas and the generals rushed to the scene, and found the three men about to be executed. The executioner raised his sword, and Nicholas fearlessly ran up and grabbed the point of the sword, tossing it to the side. He then proceeded to Eustathios's office, and shouted at him "You are an enemy of God. You have committed a very great crime by condemning three innocent men to death!" The charges were dropped. The three Roman generals moved on, and reigned in their rowdy troops.

The three generals were successful in their mission to Phrygia, and put down the revolt there with no bloodshed. Upon their return to Constantinople, the new capitol of the Roman Empire, Emperor Constantine rewarded them richly and promoted them. This caused some of their rivals to become jealous, and they bribed the Imperial prefect, Ablavius, to accuse the generals of not only failing to destroy the Phrygian rebels, but actually aiding them in a bid for power. Ablavius took the bribe, and told Emperor Constantine of the charges against the generals. A furious Constantine ordered them executed for treason.

The shocked generals, who had served Constantine loyally, were locked up and were to be executed the next day. Remembering how Bishop Nicholas had saved those three innocent men from death back in Myra, the three generals prayed together, "Lord, God of our Father Nicholas, who saved the three men of Myra from an unjust death, come, Lord, and do not forget us who are in danger of our lives. Free us from the hands of our enemies. Do not delay, for we are condemned to die tomorrow."

That night, as Constantine slept, a man appeared to him in a dream, threatening him with death in a terrible war if he should execute the three innocent generals. Constantine asked him who he was, and he replied, "The Bishop of Myra, Nicholas; God has sent me to tell you to free these men without delay." When Emperor Constantine woke, he sent for Ablavius, who said he had had the same dream. The two summoned the generals, who again protested their innocence. Constantine asked them who they had turned to for help, and they replied that they had turned to Bishop Nicholas and his God. Constantine was convinced, and freed the generals, who sold their worldly possessions and became monks, devoting their lives to God.

Nicholas also travelled to Constantinople to ask Constantine to lift the heavy taxes that were crushing the people of Myra. Constantine agreed, and a century later the people of Myra still attributed their low taxes to Bishop Nicholas.

Not long afterward, in A.D. 337, Constantine died peacefully in his bed, leaving the Empire to his three sons. The three sons followed the way of Christ like their father, but were divided as to whether they supported Arianism or Trinitarianism. Ultimately, greed for power took them like so many others before them, and they fought wars against one another for sole control of the Empire.

Six years after Emperor Constantine's death, in A.D. 343, Bishop Nicholas of Myra died as well, one of the very few Catholic saints who died of old age. He was entombed in Myra, where great numbers of pilgrims came to pay homage in the years following. But that is not the end of his story.


Krig the Viking said...

Stay tuned for Part II: The Legend of Santa Claus, on Christmas Eve!

Anonymous said...

That's awsome!

Benjamin said...

Very well written.
I like the ending.