The legend of Santa Claus involves a blend of fact and fancy, according to Father Teodor Czabala.
Yet there’s no questioning the authenticity of St. Nicholas, the Catholic saint on whom Santa Claus is based, he asserted.
Father Czabala is pastor of St. Nicholas Ukrainian Catholic Church in Elmira Heights. Its patron saint was a fourth-century bishop in Myra, an area of present-day southern Turkey. Nicholas is revered for his generosity and as the patron saint of youths — factors that led to his good works evolving into the story of Santa Claus in popular culture.
Whereas Santa Claus is largely connected with Christmas Eve, Dec. 24, the feast of St. Nicholas falls on Dec. 6. Father Czabala noted that Eastern Catholics including his Elmira Heights parishioners — and to a lesser degree Roman Catholics as well — observe the feast day with special services, prayers and celebrations.
“It’s interesting how every Christian society, almost, has a St. Nicholas Day,” he said. “It just shows you how popular he was.”
Saint gained reputation for many acts of generosity
St. Nicholas came from a wealthy family. One of his best-known charitable acts involved an impoverished man who was about to sell his daughters into slavery. When Nicholas became aware of the situation, he secretly threw gold through the windows of the man’s home.
Father Czabala added that Nicholas’ appointment as bishop of Myra happened in interesting fashion as well. The local priests, whose bishop had recently died, were praying for God to send them a new bishop — and Nicholas coincidentally walked into the church right at that time.
“They just said, ‘OK, thank you, here he is,’” Father Czabala remarked with a chuckle.
Nicholas continued to perform charitable works throughout his life and was a vigorous defender of Christianity. Several miracles were attributed to his intercession following his death on Dec. 6, 343; he is often referred to as St. Nicholas the Wonderworker. He was canonized in 1446.
Regarding the saint’s role in mainstream culture, Father Czabala referenced the poem, “A Visit From St. Nicholas” — better known as “’Twas the Night Before Christmas.” First published anonymously in 1823, it was eventually attributed to the American author Clement Clarke Moore. The poem retains St. Nicholas’ focus on generosity but introduces a fictionalized version of him as a jolly, rotund old soul who comes down the chimney on Christmas Eve to deliver gifts.
Whereas the feast day and yearlong devotion to St. Nicholas retain high importance with Eastern Catholics, Father Czabala lamented that attention to the saint among U.S. Roman Catholics has narrowed over the past 200 years, in large part due to Moore’s mythical protagonist now commonly known as Santa Claus.
Distinctions exist between Eastern, Latin Catholics
St. Nicholas in Elmira Heights is one of two Eastern Catholic parishes in the Diocese of Rochester that bear the saint’s name. The other is St. Nicholas the Wonderworker, a Melkite Greek church in the Rochester suburb of Gates.
Ukrainian Catholics and Melkite Greeks are in full communion with the Roman Catholic Church, sharing the same sacraments, theology and dogma as Roman Catholics. An Eastern Catholic liturgy fulfills the Sunday-Mass obligation for Roman Catholics and follows the same basic structure as the Latin-rite liturgy.
However, Eastern Catholicism — formulated in the late fourth century following the east-west division of the Roman Empire — holds several distinctions. For instance, Eastern Catholics call Holy Mass the Divine Liturgy, and make extensive use of iconography representing religious figures through such images as paintings and mosaics — as opposed to statues. During the liturgy, readings are chanted rather than spoken; and the celebrant faces away from, not toward, the congregation.
Father Czabala said St. Nicholas is “far and beyond” the most popular name for Eastern Catholic churches in the eastern United States due to two coal-mining disasters that occurred in December 1907 — one in West Virginia and the other in Pennsylvania. These events claimed many lives, but not those of Eastern European immigrants who were not in the mines so they could go to church on the feast of St. Nicholas.
“The word went out that St. Nicholas saved these men,” Father Czabala explained.
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