The Feast of Saint Nicholas
6 December 2009
Second Sunday in Advent
The Feast of St. Nicholas
The 6th of December is the feast day of St. Nicholas and, as it happens, my name day after a fashion. I say “after a fashion” because anyone who has grown up and gone through life primarily known by their middle name knows the constant confusion that it can engender. I am told that my maternal grandfather began the tradition of referring to me as “Nick” when I was less than two years old. The name stuck, and it is what I continue to use today, though it is not my first given name. Thus the Feast of St. Nicholas is the name day for my second given name, but the name by which I primarily identify. So much for that.
Saint Nicholas is primarily remembered in our industrialized world as the saint who was transmogrified by consumerism into Santa Claus, the patron saint of retailers and icon of classic Coca-Cola commercials. Before his transformation into a spokesman for getting and spending (thereby laying waste our powers), St. Nicholas was a popular saint of late antiquity beloved by generations of pious Christians for almost two thousand years.
St. Nicholas was the Bishop of Myra, a town on the coast of what is now Turkey, though in Roman times the region was called Lycia. The saint’s original tomb was in Myra, and in fact can still be found there in the basilica. But the relics of St. Nicholas were stolen from the tomb in the basilica in 1087 by merchants from Bari (thus the commercial connection reveals itself early on), who took them to Bari (the technical term for moving the bones of saints is “translation of relics”), where they lie still. St. Nicholas was (among many other functions) the patron saint of the Varangian Guard (burly northerners who were the personal guard of the Byzantine emperor), so the Varangian Guard guarded his relics at Bari much as contemporary soldiers guard tombs of unknown soldiers. Note that, while the object of veneration changes, the social structure of the ritual remains constant across diverse civilizations.
But the story of St. Nicholas as it has come down to us, may not be the whole story. There may be missing chapters from the book of history. Much as the fossil record (i.e., the record of natural history) only preserves a few specimens out of millions of living creatures, so too the documentary record of human history is spotty at best, and only preserves a small fragment of the actual events that took place in the past. Darwin has an evocative passage in the Origin of Species about the imperfection of the fossil record (from the last paragraph of Chapter X):
“For my part, following out Lyell’s metaphor, I look at the geological record as a history of the world imperfectly kept and written in a changing dialect. Of this history we possess the last volume alone, relating only to two or three countries. Of this volume, only here and there a short chapter has been preserved, and of each page, only here and there a few lines. Each word of the slowly-changing language, more or less different in the successive chapters, may represent the forms of life, which are entombed in our consecutive formations, and which falsely appear to have been abruptly introduced.”
In regard to actual documentary historical records, it is often literally the case that we have only only one volume out of several, and sometimes only a page or a paragraph out of a volume, so that what Darwin wrote metaphorically about the fossil record applies literally to the written record.
As it happens, I visited in the Lycian shore in 1993. I did not see Myra, though I was nearby. There is an organization called Earthwatch that organizes scientific expeditions supervised by professional investigators who are joined by volunteers who pay for the privilege of joining the expedition. Thus it was in the fall of 1993 I joined an Earthwatch expedition that cruised along the coast of what is now Turkey, documenting both the physical geography and some of the archaeological remnants.
The principle investigator on this Earthwatch expedition was a fellow named David Price-Williams, who was a veteran researcher in the region and had extensive knowledge of Turkey from its earliest history to the present day. He brought the expedition to a small island close to the bay of Fetiyeh. The Island goes by two names: Gemilier and St. Nicholas Island. The small island is densely packed with Byzantine-era ruins, among which ruins there is a remarkable ceremonial passageway that extends all the way from the shore of the island up to near the top of the island where there is a ruined basilica that has been not merely built on top of the island but was once, at great effort, carved into the rocky substance of the island. The ceremonial passageway, now ruined, was at one time a covered walkway by which one could have walked all the way from a quay on the shore up to, and even into, the island’s basilica. It is obvious that much effort went into this construction, and one can still pick one’s way through much of the walkway, still covered in places.
Today, doing a little searching, I found a website with this explanation of the covered passageway:
“Gemiler Island is covered with Lycian ruins, including a covered walkway built for a princess who (according to various legends) was thought by her father to be too beautiful to be seen by the populace, albino and so had to be protected from the sunlight, or just very spoilt.”
In the April 2000 issue of Islands magazine there was this account:
“Christmas snows were a long way from Gemiler that bright autumn morning. Ancient steps led me steeply upward, past a covered tunnel — a long passageway that ended at the island summit, where the remains of a church still commanded a view of the surrounding water. In Byzantine times the air would have been thick with incense, but since nature has reclaimed the breezes, every breath was rich with other scents.”
Since the covered passageway has been around for well over a thousand years, and its origins seem to have no documentation in the written record, it is inevitable that there should be many different stories about the structure, and this is what I find to be the case.
David Price-Williams, the principle investigator of the Earthwatch expedition, had a theory about Gemiler Island. I don’t recall all the details, but so far as memory serves I believe he speculated that Saint Nicholas may have died at the particular location on the top of Gemiler Island, which accounts for the somewhat awkward position of the basilica and the effort that was made to excavate it into the rock of the island. As a location sacred to the memory of Saint Nicholas, the island became a place of pilgrimage in late antiquity. And, indeed, as I noted above, the island is thickly covered by ruins — the sort of development that could only be accounted for by money brought in from the outside as opposed to strictly local industry. The covered passageway, on this account, was a purpose-built structure for the translation of the relics of Saint Nicholas, which would have been a major event, perhaps celebrated annually and the occasion of much festivity. (My apologies to David Price-Williams if I have mis-remembered or mis-represented his views on this matter.) I find it a plausible account, and it is apparent from visiting the site that it was a place of some importance and population density before it was abandoned.
Some of the ruins lie below the water line, and we know from historical accounts that a number of catastrophic natural disasters afflicted the Byzantine empire in late antiquity. Turkey has a complex geomorphology, more or less occupying its own tectonic plate sandwiched between other neighboring plates. The result of this situation is that the relatively small Turkish-Aegean plate can twist and turn in catastrophic movements of the earth that suddenly plunge some areas of land several feet lower while raising other areas of land. Thus buildings constructed in historical times could find themselves under water as the result of one violent earthquake (not necessarily as a result of gradual subsidence, which would require much more time).
Thus I have a certain personal connection to my namesake, perhaps having visited a spot that played a significant role in the growth of the cult of Saint Nicholas. Perhaps, but for the celebrations of Gemiler, Saint Nicholas might have been lost to history, and today we would have no Santa Claus. This is the merest of mere speculation — what philosophers call a counter-factual conditionals — but even a thought experiment, under controlled conditions, need not be irresponsible. It is certainly no more irresponsible than Collingwoodian a priori imagination by which we attempt to appreciate the what the ancient festivals on the island of Gemiler might have been like. And this is one of the things that most intrigues me about travel: the opportunity to inspire the historical imagination to get a feeling for life in the distant past.
Without the original Saint Nicholas I am left with the amusing thought of subsequent namesakes, for example, Niccolò Machiavelli and Nikolaus Kopernikus. I would not hesitate to claim both as my namesakes. Both were intellectual revolutionaries. The one began the process of overturning medieval cosmology, and thus is responsible in no small part for the modern world as as know it today. The other is similarly responsible in no small part for the modern world, though he began the process of overturning the medieval pieties that once dominated the practice of history.
If Niccolò Machiavelli has not been canonized (not yet, at least), that is not my fault. I am in favor of the action. If, by unanimous popular acclaim, I were to be proclaimed Pope, I would certainly make it a priority. But the Papacy is not an office conferred by popular acclaim; one must, rather, have the acclaim of the College of Cardinals. Here I must admit the I have no pull whatsoever.
Machiavelli ought to be a modern saint, or, we could say, he should enjoy the status of whatever is the secularized equivalent of sainthood. Similarly for Copernicus. Which brings us to an interesting approach to Löwith’s thesis (in his Meaning in History) that modernity isn’t a fully legitimate historical periodization since its categories are secularized derivatives of (mostly medieval) theological historical ideas. It would be an interesting thought experiment to accept Löwith’s thesis but not its valuation, and to extrapolate a thorough-going correspondence between properly theological concepts and their secularized equivalents in modernity. Is there a secularization of the idea of sainthood? But this is a task for another time.
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