Before he became a rotund Dutch uncle, smoking a long-stemmed clay pipe and trying to stuff his wide girth into an impossibly small chimney -- in the form made famous in Thomas Nast's cartoons -- the original Saint Nicholas was hardly a rolly-polly figure with not much else to do but dispense toys one night a year.
In fact, he was the bishop of Myra, early in the fourth century, in that part of Asia Minor that is now Turkey, where St. Nicholas was known for his great charity. As a young man, his own parents had died and left him a fortune, which he gave away anonymously to those in need. There are many legends about his generosity -- how he provided the dowries for three daughters of a poor man, so that they might be married; on three consecutive nights he dropped a sack of gold into their window, each so full of coins that it looked like a ball. (It's anybody's guess why pawnbrokers long ago thought they could take these three golden balls -- the three dowries -- and use it as their own symbol, which it remains to this day, and claim St. Nicholas as their patron saint.)
St. Nicholas would also become the patron saint of others in need -- sailors and sea and, surprisingly, captives. There are several stories about how he saved men from execution who were unjustly sentenced -- and once even persuaded the Emperor Constantine himself to rescind an execution order by appearing to the great man in a dream and angrily ordering him to release these innocent prisoners.
Most importantly, of course, he is the protecting spirit of children; one legend tells of his having discovered and restored to life three schoolboys who had been brutally murdered. He still appears in his bishop's robes throughout Europe, to distribute gifts to households, sometimes accompanied (at least in the woods of Bavaria and the hills of Switzerland) by wild men, howling and shaking bells, and threatening to beat the sinful. How these frightening figures got attached to him no one really knows -- perhaps its a nod to the old gods, like Woden, who were said to pass through the heavens once a year distributing to the mortals below the presents and punishments appropriate to their deeds. For us, on this side of the Atlantic, though, he's just plain old Saint Nick, always loaded with goodies, with the magical powers to fit through that chimney and drive a team of reindeer across the sky, never menacing, always forgiving (considering his omniscience) -- and with a quality that brings him right down to earth: an insatiable sweet tooth.
Copyright 2004 © John Cech
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