St. Nicholas and His Music
Written By: Aidan Wilson
Issue: Set to Appear in the Special Christmas Edition of the Newsletter
“When, of whom to my wondering ears then hear,
But a saint remembered 53 times each year,
With hymns proclaiming Arius ridiculous–
I knew in a moment it must be Saint Nicholas.”
Needless to say, at this festive time of year we hear a lot of music. In a previous article, we discussed Christmas carols, comparing them to their counterparts in the Nativity and pre-Nativity hymnography of the Church. However, amidst the classic festal sounds of “Joy to the world”, “Away in a manger”, and other songs celebrating Christ’s birth, our playlists may also include such words as “down through the chimney with good St. Nick”, or “Santa Claus is coming to town”, which at first seem to have little–if any–connection to the central themes of the holiday. Why are we singing about Santa Claus/St. Nick during Christmas time?
The answer to this question goes back to the Church calendar, in which St. Nicholas is commemorated on December 6th, 19 days before Christmas. The proximity of the two feasts led to them being closely associated with each other, and the saint’s reputation for being a joyful, generous, and selfless giver (the details of which, along with many other parts of his life, can be read in a companion article about the life and works of St. Nicholas) led to the oft-repeated tales about Santa Claus visiting houses on Christmas, darting down chimneys, and leaving presents for children.
While popular song artists sing about these exaggerated and fictitious exploits of “Santa Claus”, the Church chants in praise of St. Nicholas for his true miracles, zeal, and piety.
The Liturgical celebration of his feastday begins with Vespers on the evening prior to December 6th. In a similar manner to how secular Christmas songs form rhymes–e.g., between the sound of Santa Claus’s reindeer (“Up on the housetop, click-click-click,”) and Santa Claus’s alternate name in such songs (“down through the chimney, with good St. Nick.”)–the hymnographers employed similar-sounding words in their compositions to strengthen the parallels and comparisons made. The first two stichera at Great Vespers are perfect examples. In the first, we hear, “While living in Myra in the flesh, thou wast myrrh in truth, as anointed with the sweet spiritual myrrh.” The assonance of this line is preserved in the English translation, since the English words are directly derived from the Greek originals: “Myrois”, “Myron”, and “Myro” (A similar parallel occurs in the first sticheron for Small Vespers: “Myro”, “Myron”, and “Myrisanta”. The appearance of “-santa” in the latter of the three is pure coincidence), and can be seen and heard between the word “Myra”–the city in which the saint was a Bishop–and the word “myrrh”–the costly oil to which the saint is being compared.
The next sticheron continues this sort of poetic artistry, this time in a way less noticeable to the English listener. The hymn addresses the saint thus: “Truly thou, according to thy name, art the faithful people’s full vict’ry in all temptations and griefs.” This text refers to the Greek words “Nike” and “Laos”, for “Victory” and “People”, which–though separate in the hymn–together would be “Nike-laos”, thus proclaiming that Saint Nicholas fulfilled the etymology of his name.
The hymns go on to lead us in asking St. Nicholas for his intercessions, calling him “a mighty intercessor full of sympathy”, and praying that he “cease not to intercede with Christ God for those who with faith and longing do ever honour [his] gladsome and all-festive memorial.” And in case anyone forgets why the great man is so important to the Church, or wonders why we but our trust in his holiness and prayers, the Vesperal hymns recall numerous godly and miraculous actions performed by St. Nicholas, such as:
- Saving innocent men from prison: “Thou didst fill King Constantine with fear and with him, Ablabius, when they saw thee in visions and dreams, telling them: Make haste, straightway release the prisoners held in unjust imprisonment, for they are not guilty…”
- Defending the Faith against Arius and other heretics: “[Thou art a] sword wholly cutting out the tares of error and false belief, and fan that fully doth winnow the chaffy teachings of Arius.”
- And prophesying of future events: “With what songs fit for a Prophet’s praise shall we laud the all-ven’rable hierarch, who most plainly saw things while yet far off and who foretold them with clarity?”
For these reasons and many others, St. Nicholas is one of the most important members of the Church’s ever-growing choir of saintly men and women. His feastday is remembered and held with great joy and celebration by faithful Orthodox Christians across the world. In addition to his commemoration in early December, he is given the honor of being commemorated not just once a year in the Menaion, but also once a week in the Paraklitike: every Thursday, alongside the Apostles.
Thus, even when the radio stations go silent about Christmas and reindeer and the world’s own fairy-tale twist on St. Nick, every week the liturgical cycle of the Church calls him to mind with a wealth of songs and prayers. In the Thursday Canon for Tone 3 weeks, for example, we find even stronger storytelling concerning his apologetical work against Arius: “When Arius the madman was once ravaging the Lord’s people, you throttled him with the cords of your words as a true chief shepherd, Father Nicholas,” and raises more prayers for intercession, along with reminders of past rescues of the innocent: “As you snatched the innocent from death, so rescue us, O Holy one, from dangers, affliction and every dread trouble.” In addition to this, the Tone 2 Canon makes more references (again, poetically assonant in the original Greek) to the origin of the name Nicholas, saying “The crown of victory is worthily set upon your head, Nicholas; as noblest victor save those who call upon you.” And one of the stichera for Wednesday night Vespers profoundly cries, “Flying around the flowers of the Church, like a nestling from the nest of the Angels on high, thrice-blessed Nicholas, you ever cry to God on behalf of all of us in the constraints of dangers and temptations, and you free us by your prayers.”
So every week has its own little St. Nicholas Day, mirroring in theme and detail the main feastday itself. This fact serves as a reminder of his importance, and so this holiday season, even as our Christmas festivities wind down, and as the sounds of caroling fade, let us strive to remember the real Saint Nicholas throughout the year, keeping his life in our minds, as was the intent of the hymnographers and melodists who composed the beautiful year-round songs to him. Merry Christmas to all of you!