December Saints Calendar (Part 1)

Things get rolling this month, liturgically speaking, on December 6 with a saint who might sound familiar: St. Nicholas of Bari, better known these days as that jolly old elf, Santa Claus.

The man who inspired all those red suits and fake beards lived in the fourth century and was the Bishop of Myra, a little town in what is today the southern part of Turkey. According to early medieval tradition, Nicholas was the scion of a wealthy family and used his considerable assets to help the poor and unfortunate. But rather than giving the poor and unfortunate Rock’m Sock’m Robots or Charlies-in-the-Boxes, as we might expect, the proto-Santa instead tossed bags of gold into the windows of the (immediately thereafter) much more fortunate.

Actually, the gold-through-the-window trick was only done once, to pay the dowries for the three daughters of a wealthy man who had lost all his money and who was getting ready to give his daughters up to be prostitutes. If only that part of the legend had made it through the Norman Rockwellizing of the last few decades! Just think: instead of telling your children to be good for goodness sake, you’d have to almost sell them to whorehouses every December. OK, I know that sounds harsh, but the yearly bag of gold through the window would surely make up for it.

In the most popular medieval version of his story, Nicholas is credited with bringing three children back from the dead who had been decapitated and pickled in a brine tub by a malevolent innkeeper. This is how you most often see Nicholas, standing over what looks like a bathtub with three naked children in it (see image above left). Ah, the Christmas we could have had, if the people at Coke and Hallmark had been medievalists: naked children and bathtubs everywhere–Santa coming up through the drain, leaving presents in our soap dishes if we’re nice (and pickles if we’re naughty), then departing on his bathmat drawn by three flying naked kids.

If you scroll back up to the picture from the medieval calendar I’m using at the top of this post, you’ll see that December 8 is marked by a Fleur de Lis that may or may not be trying to catch the fish beneath it on a line. On this day, the Feast of the Immaculate Conception is celebrated. The Fleur de Lis is one of Mary’s many symbols, and the fish is presumably Christ. Why Christ is trying to swallow the letter E is anyone’s guess.

Mary has a hard enough life, what with having to appear on the grilled cheese sandwiches, retaining walls, and turtle bellies of the faithful and doesn’t need me searching for a lame joke to make about her big day, so instead I’ll just note in passing that Mary is the patron saint of the United States. This seems a bit presumptuous of us Americans, taking Jesus’s mom as our patron, but what are we if not presumptuous?

December 11 marks the Feast of Pope St Damascus I, an important early pope who presided over Christianity during its transition from fringe cult to state religion. He’s the guy who put Jerome to work translating the Bible and oversaw the Council of Rome that fixed the Christian scriptural canon. For an early Christian there’s a fair amount known about him, leaving less room for interesting miracle stories in his vita. *Yawn*

So, moving right along, December 13 sees the Feast of St Lucy, also known as St. Lucia. According to the legend, Lucy was a Sicilian girl betrothed to a pagan, but chose to give her dowry to the poor and retain her virginity instead of getting married. The would-be groom was not impressed and turned her over to the Roman authorities, who sentenced her to be defiled in a brothel. When the soldiers came to take Lucy to the brothel, however, her body was as heavy as a mountain and she could not be moved. Annoyed, the Romans doused her with oil and set her on fire, but the she remained unburnt. So they stabbed her in the throat with a dagger, but she continued to preach and sing, ala St. Cecilia, even with a knife sticking out of her neck. Unwilling to leave it at that, her Roman captors gouged out her eyes. After her eyes were magically restored, the Romans gave up trying to be creative and just killed her.*

By the Julian calendar’s reckoning, St. Lucy’s Day marks the winter solstice, the longest night of the year. According to my Swedish former DGS, extremely traditional Scandinavians mark St. Lucia’s Day by having their eldest daughter serve them coffee and cake while wearing a candle-wreath on her head, but he had had quite a bit of holiday “glögg” and might have been putting me on.**

Predictably, the saint with the magically re-appearing eyes is the patron of the blind. And because of her unfortunate case of dagger-in-the-throat-itis, she’s also the patron of those with strep throat and other throat-related woes. The Sicilians venerate her because of her ancestry, and the Swedes because she is thought to have delivered the country from famine.

And there you have it, the saints for the first half of December. Check back in two weeks for the awfully crowded second half of the month.

*I’m not sure, but I think the moral of the story here is, “If at first you don’t succeed at killing a religious rabble-rouser, try, try again. And while you’re at it, try the less symbolic means of execution, because saints’ magic only protects them against ironic or overly-meaningful death.”
**Regardless, his Saint Lucia parties were always very pleasant and introduced me to the oddly delicious combination of blue cheese and gingersnaps. Try it, if you don’t believe me.

Comments on this entry are closed.

  • Judy

    Your summary of St. Nicholas's connection with giving makes me feel better about my daughter's saying, to a proposal of a CD or DVD for Christmas, "The only thing I want is money."

    In the illustration with the boys in the bathtub I note that the kids are tonsured. Is this a sign that their experience had converted them? Or is it a hygenic haircut (the pattern-shaven pate was typical of little Japanese boys in the 19th c., often taking a tonsure form)?

  • nancy

    My boyfriend love midieval times and I would like to get him a really great, unique and valuable midieval gift but I have no clue what. I am trying to get some ideas and at the same time gain some knowledge of it all. Any suggestions or ideas would be so much appreciated.
    Thanks

  • Sheryl

    Your ideas for current Christmas traditions are fantastic! :-)

    When I read, "…the Romans gave up trying to be creative and just killed her," I wondered, "How?" So, your footnote makes perfect sense to me!

  • The Armeniac

    Lucia is also used for help with 'true vision', as in interior vision of ones self. The gouged out eyes being a metaphor for seeing the deeper reality not available to our senses, if one believes in such notions.

  • Ceirseach

    Yes, hence Lucia also being the Patron Saint of Dante. :) And of course, for Italians (or, well, anyone with Latin), the etymological connection between 'Lucia' and 'light' is much more obvious.

    You're not the only presumptuous one – Mary's our patron saint over in Australia too. Someone has a full-time schedule.

  • ncm

    Maybe these monthly things ought to be (e.g.) "December Got Saints".

  • Claire

    I'd always heard it Nicholas of Myra, perhaps there's two of them…

  • Kelly

    Great post! I'm half Danish, and we just did a post about Santa Lucia Day in our house :-) Here is the post: http://www.thespunkycoconut.com/2009/12/santa-lucia-day-lucia-saffron-buns.html

    Cheers, Kelly

  • MrPopularSentiment

    My mother worked for a Swedish company, and I remember wearing the white dress with a red sash and candle/green stuff crown at a staff party. They also used to give out little St. Lucy dolls to the kids of staff.

    I always thought she was blind because she gave up her eyes for her blinded boyfriend. I think that, in my childhood wonderment, I managed to confuse St. Lucy's story with Rapunzel's.

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