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Christmas in Greece

Was Santa Greek?


Christmas in Greece - Tree at Syntagma Square

Christmas in Greece - Tree at Syntagma Square

Picture of Syntagma Square at Christmas courtesy of City of Athens Press Office; used by permission.
There's a nasty old saying "Beware of Greeks bearing gifts", probably an allusion to that unfortunate incident involving the Trojan Horse...which should have ended forever another phrase, "Don't look a gift horse in the mouth!"

At Christmastime, don't be beware of anyone bearing gifts, and don't look too closely at their teeth, either. Some people don't want to look too closely at Santa Claus, for fear he'll melt away like a snowflake.

Name Gives Clue to Santa's Secret Identity

But fear not - Santa does exist..and he's a Greek. His alternative name, St. Nicholas, reflects his true identity. From gift-giving to red clothes, Nikolaos of Myra was a model for the modern Santa Claus.

In Asia Minor at the Graeco-Roman city of Myra in about AD 300, a pious young man named Nikolaos was born. He was one of the youngest men to ever become a priest, and his devotion and piety were renowned. So was his practicality. In a time when extra daughters might be sold into slavery if the family couldn't afford a dowry for them, Nikolaos stepped forward, providing funds to destitute women and men, sometimes to assist in their marriages, other times to just relieve their crippling poverty. Some tales have him throwing bags of gold down the chimney, a precursor of the modern Santa's travel down the chimney.

His generosity was born of an understanding of the potential pain of those he chose to help - Nikolaos was persecuted and imprisoned for his faith, so his compassion for the potential loss of freedom for those he helped was a very real and personal one.

The Later Life of Agios Nikolaos

Nikolaos later became a bishop, helping to set up the formative Council of Nicaea which decided many points of orthodox Christian practice. Bishops got to wear dramatic red robes, and some images of Nikolaos depict him with a flowing white beard, though others show him clean-shaven.

Later, he became a patron saint of Russia, which reaches above the arctic circle into traditional Santa territory. While in the Far North, he may have acquired an association with reindeer, as he is known as the patron saint to another Arctic animal, the wolf. Or images of him riding on a horse carrying his bishops' crook may have been misinterpreted as him riding or being accompanied by an antlered animal. In modern Greek Island celebrations, his mode of transport may even be by bicycle.

St. Nikolaos Around the World

St. Nikolaos became the Dutch Sinterklaas, which then evolved into the modern "Santa Claus". The most renowned depiction of Santa Claus comes from "Twas the Night Before Christmas", when all through the house - whoops, sorry - whose original title is "A Visit from St. Nicholas".

His "Name Day" is December 6th, the anniversary of his death, which is still a gift-giving date in many countries, though most have conformed to the 25th as the date for distributing presents.

After Nikolaos' death, he was made a saint, patron of sailors and children, butchers and bakers, and judges, to name just a few. Many Greek beaches and harbors still have shrines to him. Part of the saint-making process requires attested miracles, and he accumulated plenty. While those miracles don't list traveling around the world in a single night, dropping gifts everywhere, once miracles can be managed, why should anything be impossible?

Still A Hardworking Saint

In the present day, St. Nikolaos the Wonderworker of Myra is called upon to preside in spirit over Orthodox meetings seeking to unify the churches.

May your own winter festivals, however you celebrate them, be full of richness, unification, and miracle as well.

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