By MARCIA LANE
Does Santa exist?
Of course he does. Haven’t you seen Miracle on 34th Street – preferably the Edmund Gwenn-Maureen O’Hara- John Payne version?
But even before the 1947 movie there was a fellow named Nicholas, Saint Nicholas. He’s more the non-secular, non-commercial side of the season. In many countries he’s also the main gift giver.
Nicholas was born in the third century in Patara, an area once Greek and now on the southern coast of Turkey. At an early age he inherited his family’s wealth after his parents died. They had raised him as a Christian and he followed that teaching giving his fortune to “assist the needy, the sick and the suffering,” in the words of the website devoted to him (stnicholascenter.org). He became known for his “generosity to those in need, his love for children and his concern for ships and sailors” and as a young man was named Bishop of Myra. Like many early Christian leaders he was persecuted, exiled and imprisoned. Later released, he died Dec. 6, 343.
The anniversary of his death – Dec. 6 — has become St. Nicholas Day in Western Christian counties. In the Netherlands it’s celebrated on Dec. 5 and in Eastern Christian counties on Dec. 19.
Celebrations and customs linked to his day vary. In many places St. Nicholas comes dressed as a bishop with robes and a miter. He carries a book containing children’s good and bad deeds. In some countries there are cookies made in his shape. Children may leave carrots or hay for his horse.
In the United States in areas with large Germanic populations, children would place shoes outside the door in hopes of getting a small gift. It’s a continuation of a custom from the Old World and encompasses a story about how the real Nicholas secretly gave gold for the dowries of three poor sisters. He tossed the gold in and it landed, depending on the story, either in shoes or a stocking handing by the fireplace to dry.
While good children get gifts, bad children often are threatened by Krampus, a devil figure who accompanies St. Nicholas. They may shake sticks at children or give them ashes or a bundle of twigs. Sound familiar?