SANTA CLAUS - THE CHISWICK CONNECTION

Many people in Chiswick will know that Chiswick Parish Church on Church Street in Old Chiswick is dedicated to St Nicholas and many people realise that St Nicholas is often regarded as being the original Santa Claus or Father Christmas. So we know that Chiswick is in some way connected to Santa Claus but we don't quite know how. Here's the answer !

Once upon a time, about three hundred years after the birth of Jesus Christ, a boy called Nicholas was born in Patara in Lycia, which was in a part of the Roman Empire known as Asia Minor. Lycia is nowadays in south-western Turkey so if he were born today, Nicholas would have been a Turk!

Nicholas travelled as a young man to Palestine and Egypt and was ordained as a Christian priest. He was elected as Bishop of Myra in Lycia and, like so many then and since, he was imprisoned for his faith during Emperor Diocletian's persecution of the Christians. Nicholas was released from prison under the rule of Emperor Constantine, the first Christian Roman Emperor, and attended the first great council of the Christian Church in Nicea in Asia Minor in 325 AD.

A KIND AND GENEROUS MAN

Nicholas was a very kind and generous man and his reputation inspired stories of miracles he performed for children, sailors, prisoners, the poor and the unhappy. He was said to have provided marriage dowries of bags of gold for three poor girls who otherwise would have been forced into lives of slavery or worse; the three dowries are the origin of the pawnbrokers' symbol of three gold balls. He is also said to have restored to life three children who had been chopped up by a butcher and put in a tub of brine.

Nicholas saved sailors in peril on the sea and he saved three innocent men who had been condemned to death by the Governor of Myra who had been bribed to condemn them. Nicholas spoke powerfully to the Governor and persuaded him to confess the wrong he had done and beg for forgiveness.

A VERY FAMOUS SAINT

After his death Nicholas was recognised as a Saint by the Christian Church and devotion to St Nicholas of Myra spread to all parts of the Christian world. He became the patron saint of Greece and Russia, of the cities of Moscow and Fribourg and more importantly, of children, sailors, unmarried girls, merchants and pawnbrokers.

Many churches, including Chiswick Parish Church, down by the river in Church Street in Old Chiswick by Chiswick Mall, were dedicated to him and his miracles and deeds became the subjects for artists and liturgical plays.

In 1087 AD Italian sailors took St Nicholas' body from Myra to save it from the advancing Muslims and brought it to Bari in southern Italy where his remains were placed in a superb church built by the Normans. The Basilica of San Nicola in Bari became one of the great centres of pilgrimage in medieval Europe and is still in use today over 900 years later.

Throughout Europe in the Middle Ages, churches elected a Boy Bishop on the Feast of St Nicholas on 6th December to reign until the Feast of the Holy Innocents on 28th December. Children were given presents in commemoration of St Nicholas' generosity to children and this tradition remains strong in many Roman Catholic and Eastern Orthodox countries. However, elsewhere this ancient tradition has been eclipsed by the newer traditions of Santa Claus and Father Christmas.

ST NICHOLAS' CHURCH CHISWICK

St Nicholas Parish Church, Chiswick is appropriately dedicated to St Nicholas because of its location beside the Thames and St Nicholas' association with sailors. Chiswick Parish Church has for many years commemorated St Nicholas on the Sunday closest to 6th December when a member of the congregation dressed as St Nicholas proceeds down the Church after Mass and gives gifts to the children.

In keeping with the times, in previous years, lifelong Devonshire Road resident, George Jales, portraying St Nicholas and dressed in bishop's robes, distributed bags containing gold chocolate coloured euros to the children. The chocolate euros were received eagerly and devoured rapidly before they melted down in value below parity with the dollar.

ST NICHOLAS' DAY CELEBRATIONS IN CHISWICK

There is a special Mass at 8 pm in Chiswick Parish Church every year on 6th December to celebrate St Nicholas on St Nicholas' Day.

CHISWICK'S SPECIAL SAINT

In the Council Chamber of Chiswick Town Hall there is a civic armorial shield incorporating a picture of St Nicholas; this shows that he was obviously regarded as the patron saint of Chiswick when the Council Chamber was built over a hundred years ago. How times have changed !

The inclusion of St Nicholas on the civic shield commemorates the fact that until the nineteenth century local government in Chiswick was administered by Chiswick Parish Church.. Chiswick Town Hall in Heathfield Terrace was originally built in 1874 as the Vestry Hall of Chiswick Parish Church at the cost of 5,400. Following the establishment of Chiswick Urban District Council in 1894, the Vestry Hall was taken over by Chiswick Urban Council and it was enlarged and reopened as Chiswick Town Hall in 1901.

AND SO, WHAT HAS ALL THIS GOT TO DO WITH SANTA CLAUS?

Although interest in St Nicholas greatly declined in most Reformed and Protestant Christian countries after the Reformation in the sixteenth century, his legends survived in Holland where he was known as Sinterklaas, a Dutch name for St Nicholas. Sinterklaas was portrayed as a kindly old man who punished naughty children and who rewarded good children with presents. Dutch emigrants took their tradition to North America where the English-speaking majority translated Sinterklaas into the Santa Claus known and loved by children all over the world.

And so the legend of St Nicholas has spread from fourth century Turkey through Europe and across the Atlantic where the great American melting-pot culture has incorporated Nordic and other pagan traditions, transformed it into Santa Claus and spread it around the world. The great powers of the modern world - commerce, television, film, radio and publishing - have created the modern legend of Santa Claus but Christianity gave us St Nicholas, a man for all seasons but particularly for the seasons of Advent and Christmas.

This Christmas, two thousand years after the birth of Jesus Christ, we should remember the story of St Nicholas. Most of all, we should remember the story of Jesus Christ upon whom we, like St Nicholas and Christians of old, should truly centre our Christmas and New Year festivities.

David Giles