DeFlip Side #6: The Fighting Saint

DS06.mp3

Welcome everyone. This is DeFlip Side.

A very Christmas DeFlip Side.

Hey, someone’s gotta be the voice of Christmas around here, and no one’s more qualified than me.

I’ve been listening to Christmas songs since October. I can recite every scene in It’s Wonderful Life. Each year I come up with new and more innovative ways to cram more decorations into my apartment, much to my wife’s horror. I love Christmas, and every bit of the schmaltzy crap that goes with it: the tree, the music, the food, the TV specials, the gifts, the tacky plastic lawn ornaments, the trillions and trillions of multi-colored, rapidly blinking lights. It’s not for nothing that I’ve earned the nickname Clark Griswold. I just feel bad for my neighbors when I get around to buying a house. I’m gonna be the guy they start circulating petitions over.

I’m a hopelessly lost, dyed-in-the-wool Christmas junkie. I’ve never really tried to analyze why. The warm and fuzzy factor is a big part, but there’s more.

Consider this: the romance nuts out there have Valentine’s Day with its hearts and flowers. The gothic weirdoes and occultists have Halloween with all its attendant baggage. What does Christmas have? Flying reindeer, talking snowmen, elves, sugarplum fairies—take these elements out of their Yuletide context and what do they have in common? It’s obvious. Christmas is the holiday for us, the Science Fiction and Fantasy geeks. And though most of these symbols are relegated to childhood, one in particular has very real, even frightening roots, more suited to adult Fantasy than cute poems.

I speak of the man himself, Santa Claus. There is no more recognizable figure of Christmas the world over, and none with a more compelling origin.

The first thing that makes Ol’ Saint Nick stand out is the fact that the actually was a St. Nick—Bishop Nicholas of Myra. Most of his story is undoubtedly legend, but the Bish was reputed to do some pretty miraculous things in the late part of the Third Century. For one he could bi-locate, meaning he could be in two places at once. He could also appear to people in their dreams and reanimate the dead. He is even said to have performed miracles after his own death.

There are many tales that attest to Nicholas’s piety and devotion to god, and some very Jesus-like stories about his making 100 bushels of grain feed an entire population for two years during a famine. But he was also called the fighting saint, and could kick some ass when he had to.

One pivotal legend recounts the fate of three young theology students on pilgrimage who stopped at a country inn for the night. While they were asleep, the innkeeper robbed them and killed them. He then cut them up, Jeffrey Dahmer style, salted their flesh and stored the body parts in pickle barrels. Nicholas came to the inn sometime later and could sense the plight of the students. He found the barrels, dumped out the pieces and reconstituted the bodies, bringing the students back to life.

He also did battle with demons, regularly exorcising people and even physically fighting one to remove it from a cursed well. In another story, reported to take place a full six years after Nicholas died, some sailors were caught in a deadly storm, whipped up by Satan himself. Nicholas appeared on the deck, beat the devil into submission and saved the sailors’ lives.

There are countless other stories that have the Bishop saving children, averting executions and saving the wrongfully accused. Or performing one miracle or another. He has become so popular all over the world that he is the patron saint of children, sailors, travelers, bankers, pawnbrokers, and undoubtedly other groups I’m forgetting.

Whether or not you believe these fantastic myths is a matter of faith, I suppose. It doesn’t really matter to me if they’re true or not. What I find intriguing is that this demon-stomping, dream-walking, altogether gritty man was somehow transformed into the jolly, twinkling dispenser of toys we know today.

Oddly enough, the change took place right here in New York, and was mostly due to Nick’s role as the patron saint of children. As patron saint of Amsterdam, Nicholas was a central figure in New York’s Dutch community in the early 1800s, even somewhat of an anti-popish and political symbol in the Tammany Hall days. By then, folk customs and his association with children had transformed him somewhat into the more elfin figure we know today. Then came the publication in 1822 of Clement Clarke Moore’s A Visit from Saint Nicholas—you know, “’Twas the night before Christmas”—which further embellished the myth and spread it worldwide. And finally, there was Thomas Nast, the cartoonist who brought Moore’s poem to life and whose illustrations forever cemented the image of Santa as we know him. From then on, Claus has taken center stage in our holiday celebration and become not only a symbol of the good aspects of Christmas, but also its crass commercialism.

But I prefer a more wholesome aspect of Santa, the one embodied in Francis Church’s infamous New York Sun editorial, “Yes, Virginia…”

“Yes, Virginia, there is a Santa Claus. He exists as certainly as love and generosity and devotion exist…Thank God he lives and lives forever. A thousand years from now, Virginia, nay 10 times 10,000 years from now, he will continue to make glad the heart of childhood.”

That’s the real magic that makes Claus the most enduring symbol of Christmas. If Christmas is the holiday for Sci-Fi lovers, then St. Nick is Sci-Fi without the cynicism, Fantasy without the specter of evil. He is inherent goodness, and boundless hope. And, in this time of war and national tragedy, his optimistic and healing spirit is needed more than ever in the city that created him. We have to foster that hope, help sustain it. For my part, I’ll be remembering, praying, and doing what I can to luring Santa out from the shadows and help him spread the cheer of the season.

A big plate of milk and cookies probably wouldn’t hurt either…

Merry Christmas, everyone!

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