I Saw Santa!

by Fr. Tim Goldrick, St. Nicholas of Myra Catholic Church, North Dighton, Massachusetts

Friday 28 November 2008 - at home on Three Mile River—the biggest shopping day of the year

Reconstructed face
Reconstructed face
Image: Image Foundry Studios / Anand Kapoor Used by permission

Some call this day after Thanksgiving "Black Friday." Today I purposely stay home. "Black Friday" is slang, originating in Philadelphia during the 60's. It references the nightmarish beginning of the annual shopping frenzy in preparation for "The Holidays." Consumerism is against my belief system and I choose not to participate in the madness, but it's "make it or break it" time for retailers. They want to run their businesses "in the black" this fiscal year, not "in the red."The economy being the way it is, maybe "Black Friday" will be renamed "Red Friday."

In 1939, during the Great Depression, President Franklin D. Roosevelt moved Thanksgiving Day up a week to give retailers a longer shopping season. It didn't work. It's a cultural taboo to begin Christmas advertising before the Thanksgiving Day parades. Thanksgiving Day was quickly moved back.

Who always rides at the end of the Thanksgiving Day parades but Santa? Santas will be everywhere from now until December 25. Of all the Santas on all the street corners in all the world, not one of them will look like the first Santa. Of this, dear readers, I am certain. I have seen Santa with my very own eyes. Not our mythical Santa Claus, you understand, but the original—Saint Nicholas of Myra himself! I saw him on the Internet. Here's how.

In the year 1087, the relics of Saint Nicholas were moved from the tomb in his cathedral church in the besieged City of Myra to the City of Bari, Italy, where pilgrims to his shrine would be safer. Among these relics was a skull. His bones were enshrined in a beautiful basilica in Bari. There they rested undisturbed until the 1950's, when Church authorities opened the reliquary in order to repair it. At the request of the Vatican, Dr. Francisco Introna, a professor of anatomy, measured and X-rayed the relics before the venerable bones were solemnly returned to their resting place.

In our time, with so many advancements in the science of forensic reconstruction, Dr. Carol Wilkinson, a facial anthropologist, used the research of Dr. Introna to create a three-dimensional computer image of the saint's actual features. A digital artist added the details of a typical fourth-century elderly Mediterranean man.

Thanks to modern technology, we are able to look the historical St. Nicholas in the face. The image is startling. St. Nicholas looks nothing like any image of Santa Claus I've ever seen. He has olive skin and brown eyes. His hair and beard are cropped in the classical Greek style. Bishop Nicholas was Greek, after all. If you want to see how St. Nicholas really looked, visit http://www.stnicholascenter.org and click on "The Real Face of Saint Nicholas."

Even more startling is the obvious fact that St. Nicholas' nose had been badly fractured during his lifetime. Somebody punched Santa Claus in the face! Who would do such a thing? Chances are he was beaten during his imprisonment. Yes, St. Nicholas was in prison. He was sentenced to prison during the reign of the Roman Emperor Diocletian. Nicholas was accused of the crime of being a Christian and there was more than enough evidence to convict him. Diocletian had launched a fundamentalist campaign to return to the old-time religion. This meant violently suppressing this newfangled Christianity. The emperor's strategy had the opposite effect, but countless Christians suffered and died nonetheless. Saint Nicholas was one of those who suffered.

It's hard to imagine anyone imprisoning Santa Claus, let alone beating him to a pulp, but that's the way things were for Christians in those days. Sometimes I think at least part of the reason we modern Christians are so indifferent to our faith is that we don't have to suffer for it. Christianity has become too easy and our pews too comfortable. There's no challenge. We meld into the culture instead of standing up to our beliefs when society goes wrong. I'm reminded of the bumper sticker, "If you were accused of being a Christian, would there be enough evidence to convict you?" For many of us, the case would be thrown out of court for lack of evidence.

Not that anyone of sound mind would purposely go looking for confrontation and its consequential risks. That would be pathological behavior. However, when unavoidable suffering comes our way, we must embrace it. This is the Paschal Mystery. Sometimes we have to publicly profess our beliefs, come what may. Of course, to stand up for one's beliefs, one first has to know what those beliefs are and then be passionate about them. Negative reaction may include the possibility of upsetting some people or being called nasty names or even getting smacked upside the head.

This is the reason that, contrary to popular opinion, Saint Nick and not Rudolph the Reindeer is the one with the red nose.

By Fr. Tim Goldrick, St. Nicholas of Myra Catholic Church, North Dighton, Massachusetts. The article was first published in The Anchor, Fall River Diocese, December 2008. Used by permission.

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