St. Nick is often used as another name for Santa Claus but in truth Nicholas is the original. Born in the third century a.d., Nicholas became well known for his charity to children and others. He was imprisoned by the Romans and beaten. He never renounced his faith. Later when released when Constantine became emperor, he continued his life serving God and his faith. He lived to be a very old man dying on 6 December 343. Stories of his charity to children and others spread and long after his death people still revered him with churches built in his name. Stories of miracles attributed to him emerged as well.
The Roman Catholic Church, Eastern Orthodox, Greek Orthodox, Anglican and Lutheran churches all have his feast day on their calendars (those using the Julian calendar celebrate it on 19 December). The Roman Catholic Church did not strip him of being a saint. Until 1968, every saint had a feast day that had to be celebrated in every diocese. What they did was make certain feast days optional and allow each diocese to decide whether to celebrate it or not. St. Nicholas is an optional feast day so it is up to the diocese to decide.
Stories of a mythical gift giver (often from pagan beliefs like forest elves that leave presents for nice kids) became popular in many European countries and were imported to the U.S. Various aspects from German, Dutch, and English were blended to create the character–the commercial character–of Santa Claus. There is no connection between St. Nicholas and the modern day character that lives in the North Pole, has flying reindeer, and elves to make toys. Santa Claus is a purely secular and even by some standards a pagan creation with no connection to St.Nicholas or Christianity. Remember that when someone says Santa Claus ought to be banned because is based on a religious figure.
Eastern Orthodox Christians celebrate Christmas Day usually on or about January 7 each year. This is due to the fact that Eastern Orthodox follows the Julian calendar rather than Gregorian for liturgical feasts and occasions such as Christmas. So the date on the Julian calendar is December 25 but there is a 13 day difference so on the Gregorian or Western calendar it is January 7.
It is called the Gregorian calendar as Pope Gregory XIII proclaimed it in a Papal Bull in 1582. It was adopted by most Catholic countries but others did not use it right away (some for religious reasons since they were Protestant) and took over 300 years to be fully implemented. Great Britain did not formally adopt it till 1752. Russia adopted it in 1918, Greece in 1923 and Turkey in 1926. The reason for the change was the Julian calendar was not very accurate and had to many leap years. Because of this it would fall out of sync with fixed dates for astronomical events like equinoxes and solstices.
Eastern Orthodox Christians has over 250 million believers in Eastern Europe, Greece, the Caucasus, the Middle East, Europe, Africa, and United States. Except in countries that are predominately Eastern Orthodox, it is not celebrated as a public holiday.
Epiphany or Three Kings Day is January 6 and as the Twelfth Night officially ends the Christmas season. It is a day to celebrate the baptism of Jesus and the arrival of The Magi (Three Kings or Wise Men). In the Middle Ages Christmas was celebrated from Christmas Eve to January 6. And Epiphany Day was a major celebration well into the mid 19th century when its importance diminished. The Catholic Church no longer requires January 6 to be celebrated as a solemnity and celebrates it on the Sunday that follows it. Some Protestant churches celebrate the Epiphany season from January 6 till Ash Wednesday. Orthodox Christians celebrate it on January 19 as they follow the Julian calendar.
In many Spanish speaking countries, Dia de los Reyes (Three Kings’ Day)is celebrated with special foods and gatherings. Many European countries have their own unique observances as well. Children often gets treats or presents on this day. In Italy, La Befana flies through the night on January 5 on a broomstick to deliver gifts to good kids and give coal to the bad ones.
Though Christmas Day has come and gone, we are still in the Christmas season till Epiphany Day (usually January 6). Here is a classic from Handel’s Messiah, the Hallelujah Chorus. A masterpiece that is timeless. Enjoy.
If you remember the Christmas carol Good King Wenceslas you heard the name. Stephen was a deacon in the early Christian church who was accused of blasphemy and put on trial by Jewish authorities in Jerusalem. After a trial in which he denounced them, Stephen was stoned to death. One of the witnesses to the event was Saul of Tarsus, who later converted and is known today as the apostle Paul. Stephen is considered the first martyr for the faith, the reason his feast day immediately follows the celebration of Jesus birth. All the major Christian congregations–Anglican, Catholic, Lutheran, Oriental Orthodox, and Eastern Orthodox–all venerate him as a Saint and celebrate the feast day (Western churches on 26 December, 27 Dec Orthodox, and 8 Jan Oriental Orthodox). In some countries (mainly Western Europe)it is a public holiday.
In the United Kingdom, Australia, Canada, and New Zealand it is celebrated as Boxing Day, a secular holiday that falls on the same day as Feast of Stephen. Traditionally it is the day in which servants and tradespeople receive the “Christmas box” from their employers. While that tradition may still hold true, it is either a second Christmas day for some or an extra shopping day (though in some countries it apparently is a day when a lot of returns to retailers takes place). It is also a major sports day as well.
“….And it was always said of him, that he knew how to keep Christmas well, if any man alive possessed the knowledge. May that be truly said of us, and all of us! And so, as Tiny Tim observed, God Bless Us, Every One!” (Dickens, A Christmas Carol)