Each December the Princeton University Chapel Choir performs a free holiday concert in the impressive university cathedral (actually, it is a chapel, but given its size I’ll stick with cathedral). This year’s concert was Benjamin Britten’s “Saint Nicholas.” The association of Saint Nicholas with Christmas, not really a major holiday until relatively recent times, was an aspect that developed long after his death in the fourth century. The date of his death, December 6, and his association with the giving of gifts, made him an obvious model for Santa Claus (who still bears his name). Most of the gifts I’ve received from bishops involved losing a livelihood and personal dignity, so it is little wonder that Nicholas is venerated. Few bishops of his generosity exist today.
The stories of Nicholas of Myra, however, are full of mythical accounts that bear less resemblance to history than to legends of old. Eric Crozer’s lyric for Britten’s piece invokes several of these miraculous tales. Saint Nick, it seems, stilled a storm at sea, multiplied food and walked on water like Jesus. The lyric also tells the legend of how he raised three pickled boys from the dead, although I have to admit I couldn’t get my mind off zombies after that. This story seems to owe something to the myth of Tantalus, who, like Nicholas, was from Anatolia. In real life we do know that at the Council of Nicaea Nicholas punched Bishop Arius in the ear for his heresy. Theological discussions are like that sometimes. And I wonder if that might not be the origin of another curiosity of which a friend recently reminded me—Saint Nicholas doesn’t travel alone.
Our modern version of Santa Claus takes its roots mostly from germanic traditions. In that culture the saint is accompanied by a more sinister character who doles out punishment to the naughty. He is known by many names: Krampus, Ruprecht, Schmutzli, Zwarte Piet, or simply the Devil. Instead of using their diabolical fists, they generally carry rods to smack the not-so-nice, kind of the Republican side to the liberal Santa. This dark figure does not appear in Britten’s “Saint Nicholas” where a (mostly) kinder, gentler saint appears. A saint who raised briny boys from the beef barrel also belted another theologian upside the head. Life, even for saints, is full of contradictions.