More MS news articles for Dec 2001

Seeing Santa as saintly hero

Spirit: Many find more meaning in the gifts of St. Nicholas than in today's commercial image.

Originally published December 23, 2001
By John Rivera
Sun Staff

Christmas approached, and Kathy Sarigianis received a visit from St. Nicholas.

He did not come bearing brightly wrapped presents. He brought a gift of healing.

Sarigianis, a multiple sclerosis patient for more than a decade, sat in a wheelchair in her Calverton home as the Rev. Manuel Burdusi, pastor of Greektown's St. Nicholas Greek Orthodox Church, held to her forehead a gold-plated disc containing a relic of St. Nicholas.

The tiny piece of bone - half the size of a grain of rice - is believed to be from the 4th century bishop who inspired the legend of Santa Claus.

"We ask that you bless your servant, Katherine, and give her strength in soul and body to endure the illness that has been inflicted upon her," Burdusi prayed.

Over time, the beloved figure of Santa, the jolly white-bearded old man with a red suit and a bag of toys, has obscured the historical figure of St. Nicholas, known for his kindness to children and love of the poor.

But his memory endures for many Christians, particularly the Orthodox, who venerate him as St. Nicholas the Wonder Worker, whose intercession to God can produce miracles. And many other religious leaders are turning to St. Nicholas, to restore religious meaning to a holiday they believe has been overcome with crass commercialism.

In England, Anglican Church leaders are campaigning to replace Father Christmas with St. Nicholas as the face of the Yule season.

"St. Nicholas points to Christ, the true cause of our joy at Christmas," said James Rosenthal, founder and president of the St. Nicholas Society in London. "The reality is the word is what it is: Christ's Mass. It can be cloaked to the point where it becomes unrecognizable. The day the church lets that happen, we are in serious trouble."

Rosenthal, an American who coordinates communications for the London-based Anglican Communion, began the campaign by mounting an annual celebration around St. Nicholas' feast day, Dec. 6, at Canterbury Cathedral, featuring someone portraying the saintly bishop.

Several Anglican bishops, including the Archbishop of Canterbury, spiritual head of the 70 million-member Anglican Communion, have endorsed his efforts.

"I applaud the notion of restoring the historical identity of the great gift-giver who was the Bishop St. Nicholas," Archbishop George Carey has said. "He and his legend epitomize Christian sacrifice, generosity and compassion."

In this country, Carol Meyers of Holland, Mich., leads a campaign to build a national St. Nicholas museum, perhaps located in Manhattan.

Wanting to stress the religious roots of Christmas to her children, she adopted the traditions of her neighbors of Dutch ancestry, who told their children that St. Nicholas, or Sinterklaas, came on his feast day and filled their shoes with toys and candy. When the Dutch brought the tradition to America, Sinterklaas was anglicized to Santa Claus.

"Our American understanding of Santa Claus developed from this Christian saint, who was a faithful follower of Jesus Christ," Meyers said. "As he lived out that faith, he was compassionate, he cared for the weak and vulnerable, children and those in need."

St. Nicholas also is being embraced by those who advocate living a simpler, less materialistic life.

"Santa Claus is an icon for consumerism," said Gerald Iversen, national coordinator for Alternatives for Simple Living, based in Sioux City, Iowa, which distributes songs and plays about St. Nicholas as part of its annual guide for simpler Christmas celebrations, "Whose Birthday Is It, Anyway?"

"We feel that St. Nicholas is a much better symbol for giving, especially to the needy and not just to our own friends, relatives and cliques," he said.

Although Santa makes his home at the North Pole, St. Nicholas came from Myra, a town on the Mediterranean Coast in what is now Turkey.

According to legend, the Bishop of Myra heard of three poor sisters who had no dowry for marriage and faced possible prostitution or slavery. The bishop climbed the roof of their house on three successive nights to drop a bag of gold down the chimney.

It is believed St. Nicholas died in Myra on Dec. 6 in 345 or 352.

During the 6th century, the bishop's body was entombed in a church erected near Myra. His bones were removed - either stolen or liberated, depending on who tells the story - in the 11th century by Italian merchants, who took them to Bari, Italy, where a shrine was erected in his honor.

At some point, the custom began in Europe of leaving treats for children on his feast day. Protestant reformers banned the practice in the 16th century, so the tradition evolved in Germany of the Christkindlein, or Christ child, who brought gifts to children on Christmas. Christkindlein became kristkingle, which evolved into Kriss Kringle, another name for Santa.

Much of the image of Santa Claus is shaped by the 1822 poem, "A Visit From St. Nicholas" - also known as " 'Twas the Night Before Christmas." Political cartoonist Thomas Nast penned the first prominent drawings of Santa for Harper's Illustrated, trying to raise the spirits of Union soldiers in 1863 by depicting him wearing the Stars and Stripes. The familiar red suit with white fur trim originates from a Coca-Cola ad launched in 1931, when artist Haddon Sundblom used a retired Coca-Cola sales rep as his model for the classic Santa.

In his evolution, jolly old St. Nick has become practically unrecognizable from St. Nicholas of Myra. His relics, especially treasured by Orthodox and Roman Catholics, help to recall the life of the saintly bishop. Greek Orthodox officials still hope to find relics of St. Nicholas and two other saints in the rubble of St. Nicholas Church, which stood in the shadow of the World Trade Center.

Burdusi feels especially thankful this holiday season to have located the relic for his parish. He was browsing recently at a Washington book and icon store when he spied the relic on a table with several others. He was told it would be given to him if he gave a donation for the adjacent Monastery of The Holy Cross.

In the weeks before Christmas, he has taken the St. Nicholas relic on his visits to the sick and shut-ins so he could offer the saint's blessing. One Sunday after a baby's baptism, he slipped the relic in the pocket of her father, who is suffering from cancer.

"I told him to keep it for three days, light a candle in your home and pray to St. Nicholas for a miracle," he said.

Burdusi, who named his only son after the saint, also took the relic to Communion for Sarigianis.

"I have somebody for you to meet," he told Sarigianis, 34, who uses a wheelchair and is no longer able to speak.

Burdusi, dressed in a black clerical robe and a green-and-gold stole, sang a hymn in Greek to St. Nicholas and then blessed Sarigianis with the relic. Then, he put it in her hand, curling her fingers around the tiny box.

"This will give her spiritual strength to go on in the battle with this illness," Burdusi said later. "Sometimes God's plan is not physical healing, but spiritual healing."

Overcome by the blessing, Sarigianis wept as her mother caressed her shoulder.

"We still have a lot of hope in God's blessing," said Christina Sarigianis, Kathy's mother and full-time caregiver. "She's got a great inner spirit. That's what keeps her going, her inner strength and her love of God."

Copyright © 2001, The Baltimore Sun