06 Dec Saint Nicholas is coming (back) to town
Uffe Holmsgaard Eriksen follows the generous saint from Anatolia, across seas and rooftops, into a narrative rabbit hole.
On 2 November 2021, the rebuilt Saint Nicholas Greek Orthodox church at Ground Zero in New York was opened. The old church was completely destroyed during the terrorist attacks on World Trade Center on September 11, 2001.
A new choral piece was commissioned to celebrate the occasion of the opening. The world-famous Estonian composer, Arvo Pärt, composed a choral work set to a medieval Greek hymn on St Nicholas of Myra. The hymn was performed at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, on October 31 and November 1, 2021 by the choir Artefact Ensemble under the direction of the conductor Benedict Sheehan. In this way, the late antique bishop who was eventually transformed into modern-day Santa Claus, has indeed come back to town.
I will not dwell on Santa Claus and the morphology of the bishop of Myra. That story has been told several times elsewhere (see, for instance). Instead, I want to focus on the ‘long eleventh century’– the period in which St Nicholas of Myra rises from one among many saints of Asia Minor to become one of the most popular saints, elevated to the level of the Apostles.
Last year, a reading group organized within the frame of the Retracing Connections research programme studied some Byzantine hymns and Lives of saints during the Covid lockdown. We chose to translate a hymn on St Nicholas attributed to Romanos the Melodist (c. 485-560 CE). The hymn had previously only been translated into Italian, so we decided to polish the translation and publish it. The final version was made by Thomas Arentzen and myself, with the collaboration of Christian Høgel.
The translation was published in Patristica Nordica Annuaria 35, 2020 in February this year. Since today, December 6, is the feast day of St Nicholas (in the Gregorian calendar), I found it suitable to present a few observations we made when translating and commenting the hymn on St Nicholas.
The kontakion was probably the work of a poet connected to the Stoudios monastery. Several monks, most notably Joseph the Hymnographer (ca. 816-886 CE), wrote many hymns dedicated to the saints. Joseph seems to have been responsible for the promotion and elevation of St Nicholas of Myra. According to Joseph’s Life, St Nicholas visited him when he was imprisoned in Crete. The bishop of Myra set him free from prison. Although this episode in the Life probably is a later hagiographer’s invention, it still testifies to Joseph being closely connected with St Nicholas.
This close connection is visible in the manuscript tradition: Joseph was in charge of creating the New Oktoechos, a liturgical book with hymns and prayers used in the period from Pentecost until Lent. In this book, St Nicholas is celebrated each Thursday along with the Apostles. St Nicholas had now become isapostolos: equal to an apostle. The kontakion we translated also reflects this new status of the saint in stanza 17:
You became the apostles’ truthful companion,
most esteemed one,
and dedicated yourself to their way of life,
father Nicholas, wise hierarch.
With this emphasis on the saint’s apostle-like position, it seems highly likely that the kontakion on St Nicholas emerged in an environment such as the Stoudius Monastery. However, many hymns were written in the same period to celebrate St Nicholas. No less than three more kontakia were written in his honour as well as several kanones, the other type of lengthy liturgical songs of which the monks at the Stoudios monastery produced a great many. Joseph the Hymnographer is said to have written 466 kanones, of which 385 are considered genuine.
We also find short hymns consisting of only one stanza dedicated to St Nicholas. One of these hymns, called a troparion, is sung on December 6 according to the Menaion, a book that Joseph the Hymnographer was also responsible for producing a version of. It contains hymns and prayers for each day of each month. It is this troparion that Arvo Pärt set to music to celebrate the rededication of the Saint Nicholas Greek Orthodox Church in New York. The troparion reads:
A rule of faith and a model of meekness, a teacher of abstinence hath the reality shewn thee unto thy flock; therewithal hast thou acquired: by humility – greatness, by poverty – riches; O Father hierarch Nicholas, intercede before Christ the God that our souls may be saved.
It is striking that this troparion as well as many of the hymns (including the kontakion by pseudo-Romanos) on the saint, do not at all tell the story that would later transform the bishop of Myra into Santa Claus. This is the famous story about how Nicholas secretly threw a bag of money through the window of a poor family’s house. They suffered so much that the father had chosen to send his three daughters into prostitution. This story became the basis of the gift-giving Santa Claus, a story that fits well with gift-giving consumerist Christmas.
Rather it is Nicholas, or Nikolaos (which is ‘People’s Victory’ in Greek), put forward as a humble and pious shepherd of his flock in Myra, always ready and willing to help people in danger, as one who fights against heretics, and one who supersedes many of the heroes from the Old Testament (Joseph, Moses, Elijah etc). Had it not been for the Stoudios monks’ prolific hymn writing, St Nicholas of Myra might never had risen to the fame he acquired in the long eleventh century. And had the hymnographers not emphasized his role as shepherd of his flock, always willing to help and intercede, the saint’s fate might have been like in the West, where he slowly turned into the white-bearded jolly Santa Claus in red clothes.
In the Byzantine storyworld that lives on in the Orthodox cultures of Eastern Europe, St Nicholas of Myra remains an important helper and intercessor for the faithful, someone who watches his flock and delivers them from perils. In the West, he gained fame when sailors from Italy ‘translated’ – rescued or stole – his relics from Myra to Bari in 1087. Since then he has been transformed several times, especially in the last two centuries.
As Santa Claus, he now inhabits several Western storyworlds and is accommodated to suit each culture, where his home is located in as diverse places as the North Pole, Greenland, Norway, Finland and Spain, to name but a few. In the East, he never left Myra, yet can appear anywhere when his flock needs help. This includes also New York on October 31 2021, where he was invoked by the voices of the Artefact Ensemble, singing the melodies of Arvo Pärt.