Print Version December 6th, 2005
Whenever Jesus starts talking about sheep all I can think of is mint sauce. I know I’m supposed to be thinking warm, woolly thoughts about care and concern, finding and feeding. But deep down what I think is ‘gravy’—why is Jesus comparing me to an animal being fattened for the slaughter? I don’t want to be a farm animal. I don’t want anyone eyeing me up for the table, nicely roasted with a sprig of mint on the side.
That’s the problem with words—you speak them meaning one thing but they get heard in ways you couldn’t imagine.
Saint Nicholas has accrued some strange stories on the way to becoming Santa Claus. One of the early ones places him, against the evidence, at the Council of Nicea. Once, when Bishop Arius was expounding his views, Saint Nick couldn’t contain himself and punched Arius in the face. He was thrown into prison but released the following day after the bishops were visited in dreams by the Virgin Mary telling them he meant well—it was only love for her son that made Nicholas so rough with heretics.
Then there’s the benevolent Nicholas. There’s the story of the three sisters too poor to have a dowry. Their father was on the verge of selling the eldest to make ends meet when Saint Nick got wind of it and quietly threw a bag of gold in the window while they were sleeping. The young girl married and moved on but still the family struggled and the father started eyeing up the next oldest for sale. Again, in Nicholas threw a bag of gold and another happy marriage was made. But by now the man of the house is seeing a pattern. He lets it be known the youngest daughter is on the market and then lies in wait through the night to catch the mystery gold flinger. In flies the gold and a chase ensues through the streets ending up with a breathless bishop and a properly penitent father. And this time the story gets its happy ending.
The saint’s icons show him with three bags or balls of gold—from which pawnbrokers get their sign—but a later story says they are the heads of three children caught and murdered and stuffed in a pickle barrel by a wicked innkeeper. Saint Nicholas comes calling and receives lavish hospitality from the landlord but before the saint will tuck into his dinner he asks for a pickle with it. It’s better than Columbo. The saint in magic mode resurrects the children and the baddie gets his comeuppance. … Though in some versions the three children grow up to be ruffians and murderers themselves.
Maybe that’s the root of other stories about St Nick in which he rounds up naughty children and takes them away in his sack to be drowned.
So who is he, Saint Nicholas? Hitter of heretics? Benefactor of poor? Wonder worker? Scourge of naughty boys? Or red and round usurper of Father Christmas? And why am I wasting your time with these tangled tales?
Who knows the meaning of any life till all the stories have been told? But are nothing more than the sum of the stories told about us? Nicholas must be squirming in heaven on days like this, protesting it wasn’t like that, that’s not what happened, that’s not me. Or at least he would if it wasn’t for God knowing him through and through and telling his story truly, deeply. That’s something we all have to look forward to, that and the look on God’s face as he tells it.