We never did that at our house, but I did ask Mom how it was that Saint Nicholas got to be called Santa Claus. By this time I had already determined a connection between the two. But while my mother was salutatorian of her high school class -- there were ten students at most, but that's not the point -- she was not one to wear her erudition on her sleeve. So, rather than go into an entymological treatise on the subject, she simply told me: “Say ‘Santa Claus’ three times real fast.” That carried me over for at least a few years.
No good Catholic home is without an answer to the question of whether there is such a thing as Santa Claus. There is, but that is a corruption of his real name, one that developed over the centuries. By the time devotion to Saint Nicholas reached Europe, he was known by different names. In the British Isles, he was known as "Father Christmas." In the Netherlands, he was known as "Sinterklaas," which is how we got the name that people use today. Whatever people call him, the Bishop of Myra in the fourth century is a real person, and he presently dwells in Heaven with the Communion of Saints.
He was no lightweight. He was in attendance at the Council of Nicaea when the Arian heresy was being debated. At one point, he became so enraged with the Bishop Arius (whose errors were supported by the majority of bishops up to that time, remember), that he supposedly punched Arius in the nose. That's right, kids, Jolly Olde Saint Nick cold-cocked a heretic. (Some accounts say that he merely slapped him, but that's so pansy, who'd believe it?) Anyway, many of the bishops there, including the Emperor Constantine, were scandalized by the assault, and given their sympathies, had Nicholas thrown in the dungeon. That night, the Emperor had a dream where Nicholas appeared to him, adorned in his finest liturgical vesture, and holding the Book of the Gospels. Awakened with a fright, the Emperor summoned his guards, who joined him as he raced to the dungeon, to find Nicholas unchained, with ... you guessed it.
The story varies in certain details. Some accounts tell of Our Lord and Our Lady appearing to Nicholas in the dungeon. I heard the above account from an "Old Calendar" Russian Orthodox priest. It is also said that Nicholas, now restored to his rightful place in the council, slept through the rest of the proceedings. I can't say I blame him.
At the little Byzantine Rite parish where my son learned the Faith, as it had been taught to his mother, the Feast of Saint Nicholas is a really big deal. He is the patron of Byzantine Catholics, and his image graces the iconostasis on the far left side as viewed from the assembly. There is a special hymn dedicated to "Father Nicholas" ...
O kto kto, Nikolaja l'ubit,
O kto kto, Nikolaju sluzit.
Tomu svjatyj Nikolaj,
Na vsjakij cas pomahaj.
O who loves Nicholas the Saintly,
O who loves Nicholas the Saintly.
Him will Nicholas receive,
and give help in time of need.
... and the children in the School of Religion program do a pageant in his honor every Sunday closest to the sixth of December. It culminates in the arrival of an elderly man with a long white beard, dressed in the robes of an Eastern bishop, with whom the children meet in much the same manner as they would his commercialized counterpart.
Paul used to get special icon cookies to take home, much like the ones that appear in the photos, emblazoned with the words "O Holy Nicholas" in Slavonic. These unique gingerbread cookies are from a recipe which appears at the stnicholascenter.org website.
I dearly miss that little parish. It has changed over the years. My duties at St John the Beloved have prevented me from attending there, and they have completed a new and larger place of worship next to the original, one that emulates the style common to Eastern Europe. But with every successful building project they have -- the parish hall, the rectory -- the place seems a little less homey, a little larger than life. Still, the spirit of Saint Nicholas reminds them every year, of the things that are passed on, and that remain the same.
Now, enough of this self-indulgent soul-searching. Let's go bake some cookies already!