As December begins and Advent starts the Christmas festivities are drawing closer and closer. The Crib will be constructed in front of the Cathedral and the Christmas tree will go up! On the 6th December we celebrate St Nicholas day. St Nicholas, thought to be the inspiration for today’s Father Christmas, is a quintessential part of our Christmas festivities. But his story as a gift giver, protector of children and a miracle worker for those in trouble can too often be forgotten.
Born in the 3rd Century in what is now part of Turkey, Nicholas was a devout Christian who followed Jesus’ word to “Sell what you own and give money to the poor.” He took this as his guide for life and there are many legends involving his kindness and generosity towards others. One of the best known stories about St Nicholas is how he helped a poor man and his three daughters by providing a dowry for each of the daughters to ensure they found a good husband and were not forced into slavery. On three different occasions St Nicholas threw a bag of gold coins through the window- some accounts claim that he dropped them down the chimney instead and they landed in stockings that were hung there to dry, maybe another inspiration for one of favourite Christmas traditions!
In the North Transept of the Crypt is the chapel of St Nicholas, a wonderful place to reflect on the history of the Saint. It is a smaller chapel and its simple architecture draws the eye very quickly to two important and striking features in the chapel, the icon that hangs on the wall and the stained glass window.
The icon is from the 18th Century and was a gift of Canon Jim Rosenthal in 2000 as a thanksgiving for the first St Nicholas festival held in Canterbury. It is most likely Russian. It shows St Nicholas in the centre surrounded by six other saints. The icon does not show the saint with his usual symbols. More often than not, the Saint is depicted with three golden balls in his hand, three bags of gold (a representation of the story above,) or with children or sailors beside him. We do not know the artist behind this icon as the artist of an icon should never sign his name; the purpose of the artwork is not to glorify the individual craftsman but to show devotion.
The stained glass however, does clearly depict scenes from St Nicholas’s life. At the top is the depiction of the Saint being bathed at his birth, whilst his mother, who died when he was young, looks on. St Nicholas is also well known as the protector of sailors, and the bottom half of the panel shows St Nicholas, as an adult and dressed in full vestments, with a mitre and crozier (showing that he is a Bishop) blessing a sailor. This stained glass panel is part of a collection of 13th Century windows from the Randolph Hearst Collection and purchased by the Dean and Chapter in 1956.
Whilst our Father Christmas or Santa Claus may resemble a jolly old elf now, it must not be forgotten that his origins are based in a figure known for his kindness and generosity, and his chapel here at Canterbury Cathedral is a wonderful place to reflect on that.
Madylene Beardmore- Inventory Administrator
For more information on the life of St. Nicholas please visit http://www.stnicholascenter.org/pages/who-is-st-nicholas/