Sunday, December 15, 2013

I'm Dreaming of a White Nicholas

Saint Nicholas of Myra

≖ To think that only a year ago, Jon Stewart noted that the War On Christmas had become a rote observance, devoid of its original spiritual meaning. I expected a bit of a resurgence this year simply to promote Sarah Palin's latest dumb book, but I never expected it to actually go off the rails into a national debate over whether Santa Claus is white.

Much has been said about this nonsense over the last few days, but I'd like to focus on the man depicted here, St. Nicholas of Myra. This image is from his Wikipedia page, and I'm surprised there haven't been edit wars to replace it with a lighter-skinned depiction. The real Nicholas lived in what is now Turkey and was a swarthy man, though as his fame spread northward, the paintings showed ever-lighter skin. (I imagine it must be hard to maintain a tan at the North Pole.)

Nicholas is one of the most popular Saints there is, even for folks who aren't Catholic or Orthodox. That's because he was by all accounts a vigorous champion of the poor and disadvantaged. Hagiography tends to attribute miracles, supernatural events, and oft-told legends to Saints, which historians naturally tend to be skeptical of. (Personally, my favorite Nicholas legends are in the hardboiled detective genre, but these have yet to be published. Or written.)

One deed stands out as an original and plausible account: A poor family with three daughters could not afford a dowry for them, which meant they would most likely be sold into sexual slavery. When each of these daughters came of age, Nicholas surreptitiously delivered bags of gold, enough for their dowries.

This secret gift-giving has, over the centuries, morphed into a compulsory consumption potlatch ritual. The meaning has been lost. The real Nicholas would probably be called a bleeding-heart socialist by Fox News, the very network that insists he's white (and which is, of course, the primary fabricator of the mythological War On Christmas).

So even if you're resisting what Christmas has become, give a thought to the real Old St. Nick.

Photo courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.

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