St. Nicholas of Myra

What do you know? Washington Post runs 'news you can use' feature about real St. Nicholas

What do you know? Washington Post runs 'news you can use' feature about real St. Nicholas

First things first: A blessed Feast of the Nativity to one and all, especially for those in church traditions that follow the liturgical calendar rather than the calendar of the Chamber of Commerce. Christmas is here and, well, Donald Trump has nothing to do with it.

So, thinking about church history, I was worried when I saw a Washington Post analysis piece with a headline that proclaimed: "Five myths about Saint Nick."

I was, of course, worried about that word "myth." Quite frankly, I was worried -- in the context of St. Nicholas of Myra -- about either of the most common definitions of this term:

1. A traditional story, especially one concerning the early history of a people or explaining some natural or social phenomenon, and typically involving supernatural beings or events. ...
2. A widely held but false belief or idea.

As an Eastern Orthodox Christian, calling St. Nicholas of Myra a "myth" is, well, fightin' words. At the same time, connecting the secular superhero named Santa with St. Nicholas the saint would present trouble for other people. I've written a whole lot about both sides of that tension (click here for more).

Some Orthodox folks might quibble with a few words of this piece, written by Adam C. English, a Christian studies professor at Campbell University, a Baptist campus in in North Caroline. He is the author of “The Saint Who Would Be Santa Claus: The True Life and Trials of Nicholas of Myra.”

However, the big idea of this piece is spot on: Yes, there is a real St. Nicholas. However, he is not the man at the shopping mall.

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Archaeology as click bait: Is the news 'Santa is dead' or 'Tomb of St. Nicholas has been found'?

Archaeology as click bait: Is the news 'Santa is dead' or 'Tomb of St. Nicholas has been found'?

Let me start with a kind of religion-beat emotional trigger alert.

WARNING: Members of ancient Christian communions (and lovers of church history) should put down any beverages (hot or cold) that are in their hands before reading the following "Acts of Faith" feature in The Washington Post. It may help to take some kind of mild sedative.

Now, let's proceed. First there is the headline, which is both clever and totally outrageous, in light of the actual news hook in this story. Ready? Here we go:

Santa dead, archaeologists say

The New York Post headline? You do NOT want to know.

So can you say, "click bait"? Of course this is click bait and I understand why. However, the question is whether this report contains key information that is useful to readers who are interested in the real story -- which could turn out to have major implications for church history as well as ecumenical relations between the Church of Rome and the Orthodox churches of the East.

The "Santa" in the headline is actually St. Nicholas of Myra, one of the most beloved saints and bishops in ancient Christianity. Before we get to the real story, here is the creative (to say the least) overture of the Post report (which was not written by a religion-desk pro).

First the good news:
Whoever told you that Santa Claus was an impostor with a fake beard collecting a Christmastime check at the mall or a lie cooked up by your parents to trick you into five measly minutes of quiet was, at minimum, misinformed.
The bad news: Santa Claus is definitely dead.
Archaeologists in southern Turkey say they have discovered the tomb of the original Santa Claus, also known as St. Nicholas, beneath his namesake church near the Mediterranean Sea.

Pause: This man is "also known as St. Nicholas"?

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What were Time editors really trying to say with their White House turns Russian red cover?

What were Time editors really trying to say with their White House turns Russian red cover?

Yes, Russia, Russia, Russia. Russia, Russia and more Russia.

Again.

The big idea behind this week's "Crossroads" podcast (click here to tune that in) is that one thing is for certain -- America is not Russia and America is not turning into Russia (no matter that the cover of Time magazine was trying to say).

There is another crucial idea linked to that that I have discussed before at GetReligion and with our colleagues at Issues, Etc. That would be this: Vladimir Putin is a Russian, but Putin is not Russia. Or try this: There is more to Russia than Putin. Or this: One of the reasons Putin is effective -- in his culture -- is that he knows which Russian buttons to push to move his people, even he is not sincere when doing so.

Host Todd Wilken and I ended up discussing this question: What were the editors of Time trying to say with that cover? After all, they thought the image of the White House morphing into St. Basil's Cathedral (standing in for the actual towers of the Kremlin, perhaps) was so brilliant, so powerful, so logical, that it didn't even need a headline.

The image was supposed to say it all.

But it didn't. If you want to have fun, surf around in this collection of links to discussions of all the errors and misunderstandings linked to that Time cover (and CNN material linked to it). Hey, even Pravda jumped into the mix.

All together now: But St. Basil's isn't the Kremlin. And they took the crosses off the top of the iconic onion-dome steeples (so they had to know they were dealing with a church). And this whole White House with onion domes thing has turned into a cliche, since so many other news and editorial people have used it.

So what was the big idea behind that cover?

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New York Times pays timely visit to ancient, threatened home of the real St. Nicholas

New York Times pays timely visit to ancient, threatened home of the real St. Nicholas

Let us now pause to offer a word of thanksgiving and modest praise for a New York Times story about religion.

Of course, this particular news report has nothing to do with sexuality or religious liberty, so the editorial bar was set a bit lower. However, this story does have a few kind words to say about Russian Orthodox believers, which is a kind a miracle in and of itself right now.

The dateline for this report is the city of Demre, in southern Turkey, between the Mediterranean Sea and the Taurus Mountains. In other words, this comes from a region that is absolutely crucial to the history of the early church and the people of the New Testament, although most readers (the story takes this into account) would not know that. 

The headline focuses on an all-to-often overlooked hero of the Christian faith: "In Turkey’s Home of St. Nick, Far From North Pole, All Is Not Jolly."

Now, why is this story appearing in the Times on Dec. 19th? I would assume that this is because a Times correspondent noted an increase in the number of Christians coming to Demre for events celebrating the life and faith of St. Nicholas of Myra.

But why Dec. 19th? The story never tells us why.

This raises an interesting question: Does the reporter, or the Times copy desk, even realize that Dec. 19th is the Feast of St. Nicholas, according to the ancient Julian calendar used by the Orthodox Church in Russia and in many other Eastern lands? In the West, the feast of St. Nicholas -- with its emphasis on almsgiving for the poor and small gifts (think chocolates wrapped to look like gold coins) -- is celebrated on Dec. 6th, on the newer Gregorian calendar.

But let's look at a key summary of facts early in this story:

Yes, Virginia, you heard that right, Santa Claus is from Turkey. But this year, Christmastime in Demre is far from cheery.

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Yes, Virginia ... There IS more Santa Claus-related Clickbait, and it's context-free!

Yes, Virginia ... There IS more Santa Claus-related Clickbait, and it's context-free!

The lot of a newspaper general assignment reporter these days -- even in the tony precincts of the Washington Post -- can't always be a happy one. You're slapped around by the day's events: a Cadillac TV ad "casting call" for an "alt-right" type one day, the tragic story of a guy who turned his life around, only to die while attempting to help someone in distress the next.

It's a tough spot, particularly when one appears to be tasked with aggregating news that happens far from your desk. That generally involves looking at, collecting, paraphrasing and linking to stories from external sources. (Your commentator does something similar with Utah-related business news five nights a week, Sunday through Thursday; I understand a bit of what's involved. Trust me on that.)

So one can have a bit of empathy for Cleve R. Wootson Jr., the Post reporter in question, when it comes to the question of a clearly idiosyncratic individual in Amarillo, Texas, one David Grisham, who apparently feels led to share the "good news" that there is no Santa Claus.

To children. At a mall. While they are waiting in line for interviews with the aforementioned non-existent Santa.

Can you say "clickbait"? I knew you could! (Sorry, couldn't resist.)

At first, the parents try to ignore the screaming man at the mall telling their children they’ve been lied to about Santa Claus.
Then it becomes clear he’s not going to stop.

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Holy ghost in my past: How I blew my chance to explore the faith of the 'real' Santa Claus

Holy ghost in my past: How I blew my chance to explore the faith of the 'real' Santa Claus

Our own Terry Mattingly is no fan of the commercialized, mall-defined Santa Claus.

In a GetReligion post last year, tmatt asked:

Why pass on the beloved lie that is Santa Claus?

I don't disagree often with our editor (who is devoted to the St. Nicholas of the ancient church), but personally, I love the jolly ole elf with the red suit and white beard.

Undoubtedly, part of the reason is that I grew up in a Church of Christ household where we celebrated Christmas as a secular holiday, but not a religious one. (For more details on that, check out this 2005 piece I wrote for The Christian Chronicle.)

 

Last week in the Dallas Morning News, I read a feature on a black Santa who has made headlines this Christmas season.

Like me, the Morning News writer obviously believes in Santa. Her lede makes that obvious:

Although his job takes him to the North Pole and other faraway places, this Santa — the first black St. Nick at the Mall of America — would prefer to work closer to home. 
Larry Jefferson, a retired U.S. Army veteran, returned to Irving on Monday after spending four days greeting children and handing out candy canes at Minnesota's Mall of America.
While he said his time in Minnesota was amazing, Jefferson would prefer to keep his workshop in Dallas Fort-Worth, and hopes to one day open a winter wonderland storefront.
In the meantime, he has gigs lined up at the Uber office in Dallas (he's also an Uber driver), the S.M. Wright Foundation's Christmas in the Park at Fair Park, and this weekend at the Irving Wal-Mart.
Jefferson was chosen for the historic Mall of America job after Landon Luther, the co-owner of the Santa Experiencephoto studio in the mall, sent his elves out in search for a more diverse Santa, the Star-Tribune reported.

The potential — and unexplored — religion angle comes later in the Dallas story:

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The New York Times gets the ground zero shrine story, but misses St. Nicholas Church

The New York Times gets the ground zero shrine story, but misses St. Nicholas Church

First things first: I am thankful that The New York Times covered this highly symbolic rite at the St. Nicholas National Shrine at the World Trade Center.

I was at the site just over a week ago and asked some of the crew if they knew when a cross would be installed atop the emerging dome on the shrine. This project represents the end of years of struggle to replace St. Nicholas Greek Orthodox Church -- the only house of worship destroyed on 9/11.

This is a "local" issue for me, in a way, since I am an Orthodox believer and I walk past the site every morning on my way to The King's College, when I am teaching in New York City. Click here, here and here for my columns about the church, beginning just after the attack.

The Times piece gets many things right, but leaves some major holes about the church itself -- as in the people of St. Nicholas. From the very beginning, this is a news story about a New York landmark, as opposed to a house of worship. Here is some summary material near the top:

The topping out of the shrine with the cross was a milestone in the tortuous effort to rebuild St. Nicholas Greek Orthodox Church, a little parish outpost at 155 Cedar Street in Lower Manhattan that was destroyed on Sept. 11, 2001, when the south trade center tower fell on it.
And it is more than that. The cross is the first overtly religious symbol to appear in the public realm at the World Trade Center, where officials have often contorted themselves to maintain a secular air. (What almost everyone knows as the “World Trade Center cross,” for instance, is officially referred to as the “intersecting steel beam.”)

I appreciate that the story gives a precise location for the original church, in terms of a street address. The key is that government agencies needed that tiny piece of land, so they took it. So what happened to the displaced church and its people?

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A Christmas season think piece: Why pass on the beloved lie that is Santa Claus?

A Christmas season think piece: Why pass on the beloved lie that is Santa Claus?

It happens almost every year during the week before Christmas.

Someone sends an email to a list of friends (usually veteran parents and grandparents), or posts an item on Facebook that raises this old question: Is anyone else getting uncomfortable with the whole Santa drama?

There is always a second question that flows naturally out of that: What is the purpose of this elaborate and dramatic lie? What are we trying to teach our children by doing this and what do we say to them once the charade is up? After all, in families with many children the old ones have to help sustain the lie for the little folks.

A confession from me: My wife and I, even before converting to Eastern Orthodoxy, decided -- primarily based on my work in mass-media studies, with a lot of reading about advertising -- to skip Santa Claus and tell our children that St. Nicholas of Myra -- as in the 4th-century bishop -- was a real person. The also noted that people have long honored him on his feast day (Dec. 6th on the Gregorian calendar) with gift-giving traditions that eventually, in culture after culture, morphed into something else. We told them not to play that game with other kids, but not to mock them or, well, tell them the truth, either. The key: In our faith, saints are real.

Journalists, if this subject interests you -- especially the secular, materialistic side of this equation -- then you should read and file an essay at The Atlantic by Megan Garber that ran with the loaded headline:

Spoiler: Santa Claus and the Invention of Childhood
How St. Nick went from “beloved icon” to “beloved lie”

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