This is how the Malayalam speaking people of Kerala, a small state in southern India addresses “Santa Claus” in the most loveable way. Appoopa means old man; a dear old man Santa, the Christmas father. He is our childhood hero, who is imagined as an old man in a red robe and a white long beard, with his most famous red hat, travelling on a sleigh, pulled by a reindeer. Christmas time is here and its time to remember our childhood hero. Children singing the Christmas rhyme, “Dreams of Santa,Dreams of snow….. ” hang stockings on their front doors with the hope that Santa would place gifts in it, just before bedtime, believing the age old story of “Santa Claus”.
Who is this Old Man? Is he just a popular legendary character that most of us are aware of?
St. Nicholas of Myra is a little known name, even for the most faithful devotees. But all around the world, he is a well admired figure in another name “Santa Claus!” writes the author of the book, “Eventual Annals of Nazaranis” 1 . A portion of the mortal remains of this fourth century Saint entombed at Kale, Turkey was shifted to Bari, Italy in the eleventh century. But a very few now know that a small portion of the Holy Relics of Santa Claus is kept in Kerala for more than a century. Until 1999, nobody knew about it.
St. Nicholos was born around 280 CE at Patara in the present day Turkey. He was the only son of pious parents Theophanes and Nonna, who had vowed to dedicate him to the Lord. As the fruit of the prayer of his childless parents, the infant Nicholos from the very day of his birth revealed to people the light of his future glory as a wonderworker. His mother, Nonna, after giving birth was immediately healed from illness. The newborn infant, while still in the baptismal font, stood on his feet three hours, without support from anyone, thereby honoring the Most Holy Trinity. Saint Nicholas from his infancy began a life of fasting, and on Wednesdays and Fridays he would not accept milk from his mother until after his parents had finished their evening prayers. He lost both his parents in his younger days and became a priest at the age of nineteen.
From his childhood St. Nicholas thrived on the study of Divine Scripture; by day he would not leave church, and by night he prayed and read books, making himself a worthy dwelling place for the Holy Spirit. Bishop Nicholas of Patara rejoiced at the spiritual success and deep piety of his nephew. He ordained him a reader, and then elevated Nicholas to the priesthood, making him his assistant and entrusting him to instruct the flock.
In serving the Lord the youth was fervent of spirit, and in his proficiency with questions of faith he was like an Elder, who aroused the wonder and deep respect of believers. Constantly at work and vivacious, in unceasing prayer, the priest Nicholas displayed great kind-heartedness towards the flock, and towards the afflicted who came to him for help, and he distributed all his inheritance to the poor.
The Bishop of Patara decided to go on pilgrimage to the holy places at Jerusalem, and entrusted the guidance of his flock to Saint Nicholas, who fulfilled this obedience carefully and with love. When the bishop returned, Nicholas asked his blessing for a pilgrimage to the Holy Land. Along the way the Saint predicted a storm would arise and threaten the ship. Saint Nicholas saw the devil get on the ship, intending to sink it and kill all the passengers. At the entreaty of the despairing pilgrims, he calmed the waves of the sea by his prayers. Through his prayer a certain sailor of the ship, who had fallen from the mast and was mortally injured, was also restored to health.
When he reached the ancient city of Jerusalem and came to Golgotha, Saint Nicholas gave thanks to the Savior. He went to all the holy places, worshiping at each one. One night on Mount Sion, the closed doors of the church opened by themselves for the great pilgrim. Going round the holy places connected with the earthly service of the Son of God, Saint Nicholas decided to withdraw into the desert, but he was stopped by a divine voice urging him to return to his native country. He returned to Lycia, and yearning for a life of quietude, the Saint entered into the brotherhood of a monastery named Holy Sion, which had been founded by his uncle. But the Lord again indicated another path for him, “Nicholas, this is not the vineyard where you shall bear fruit for Me. Return to the world, and glorify My Name there.” So he left Patara and went to Myra in Lycia.
Upon the death of Archbishop John, Nicholas was chosen as Bishop of Myra after one of the bishops of the Council said that a new archbishop should be revealed by God, not chosen by men. One of the elder bishops had a vision of a radiant Man, Who told him that the one who came to the church that night and was first to enter should be made archbishop. He would be named Nicholas. The bishop went to the church at night to await Nicholas. The saint, always the first to arrive at church, was stopped by the bishop. “What is your name, child?” he asked. God’s chosen one replied, “My name is Nicholas, Master, and I am your servant.”
After his consecration as archbishop, Saint Nicholas remained a great ascetic, appearing to his flock as an image of gentleness, kindness and love for people. This was particularly precious for the Lycian Church during the persecution of Christians under the emperor Diocletian (284-305). Bishop Nicholas, locked up in prison together with other Christians for refusing to worship idols, sustained them and exhorted them to endure the fetters, punishment and torture. The Lord preserved him unharmed. Upon the accession of Saint Constantine (May 21) as emperor, Saint Nicholas was restored to his flock, which joyfully received their guide and intercessor.
Despite his great gentleness of spirit and purity of heart, Saint Nicholas was a zealous and ardent warrior of the Church of Christ. Fighting evil spirits, the saint made the rounds of the pagan temples and shrines in the city of Myra and its surroundings, shattering the idols and turning the temples to dust.
In the year 325 Saint Nicholas was a participant in the First Ecumenical Council. This Council proclaimed the Nicean Symbol of Faith, and he stood up against the heretic Arius with the likes of Saints Sylvester the Bishop of Rome (January 2), Alexander of Alexandria (May 29), Spyridon of Trimythontos (December 12) and other Fathers of the Council.
Saint Nicholas, fired with zeal for the Lord, assailed the heretic Arius with his words, and also struck him upon the face. For this reason, he was deprived of the emblems of his episcopal rank and placed under guard. But several of the holy Fathers had the same vision, seeing the Lord Himself and the Mother of God returning to him the Gospel and omophorion. The Fathers of the Council agreed that the audacity of the Saint was pleasing to God, and restored the Saint to the office of bishop.
Having returned to his own diocese, the Saint brought it peace and blessings, sowing the word of Truth, uprooting heresy, nourishing his flock with sound doctrine, and also providing food for their bodies.
Even during his life the saint worked many miracles. There was a certain formerly rich inhabitant of Patara, whom Saint Nicholas saved from great sin. The man had three grown daughters, and in desperation he planned to sell their bodies so they would have money for food. The saint, learning of the man’s poverty and of his wicked intention, secretly visited him one night and threw a sack of gold through the window. With the money the man arranged an honorable marriage for his daughter. Saint Nicholas also provided gold for the other daughters, thereby saving the family from falling into spiritual destruction.
In bestowing charity, Saint Nicholas always strove to do this secretly and to conceal his good deeds. One of the greatest was the deliverance from death of three men unjustly condemned by the Governor, who had been bribed. The saint boldly went up to the executioner and took his sword, already suspended over the heads of the condemned. The Governor, denounced by Saint Nicholas for his wrong doing, repented and begged for forgiveness.
Witnessing this remarkable event were three military officers, who were sent to Phrygia by the emperor Constantine to put down a rebellion. They did not suspect that soon they would also be compelled to seek the intercession of Saint Nicholas. Evil men slandered them before the emperor, and the officers were sentenced to death. Appearing to Saint Constantine in a dream, Saint Nicholas called on him to overturn the unjust sentence of the military officers.
He worked many other miracles, and struggled many long years at his labor. Through the prayers of the saint, the city of Myra was rescued from a terrible famine. He appeared to a certain Italian merchant and left him three gold pieces as a pledge of payment. He requested him to sail to Myra and deliver grain there. More than once, the saint saved those drowning in the sea, and provided release from captivity and imprisonment.
Having reached old age, Saint Nicholas peacefully fell asleep in the Lord. His venerable relics were preserved incorrupt in the local cathedral church and flowed with curative myrrh, from which many received healing. During the crusades, a portion of his relics were stolen. After several shifting, it finally reached Bari, Italy on May 9, 1087 CE. It was officially placed there in 1089 CE by Pope Urban 2. Later, a basilica was built around it and that was consecrated in 1197 CE. In 1960’s, Roman Catholic Church removed his feast from the list of major saints.
Saint Nicholas In the Byzantine 2 Tradition:
Bishop Nicholas of Myra is known as “St. Nicholas the wonderworker” in the Byzantine tradition. The revitalizing of the three assassinated children stood as the prime among his miracles.
The name of the great saint of God, the hierarch and wonderworker Nicholas, a speedy helper and suppliant for all hastening to him, is famed in every corner of the earth, in many lands and among many peoples.
In Russia there are a multitude of cathedrals, monasteries and churches consecrated in his name. There is, perhaps, not a single city without a church dedicated to him. The first Russian Christian prince Askold (+ 882) was baptized in 866 by Patriarch Photius (February 6) with the name Nicholas. Over the grave of Askold, Saint Olga (July 11) built the first temple of Saint Nicholas in the Russian Church at Kiev. Primary cathedrals were dedicated to Saint Nicholas at Izborsk, Ostrov, Mozhaisk, and Zaraisk. At Novgorod the Great, one of the main churches of the city, the Nikolo-Dvorischensk church, later became a cathedral.
Famed and venerable churches and monasteries dedicated to Saint Nicholas are found at Kiev, Smolensk, Pskov, Toropetsa, Galich, Archangelsk, Great Ustiug, Tobolsk. Moscow had dozens of churches named for the saint, and also three monasteries in the Moscow diocese: the Nikolo-Greek (Staryi) in the Chinese-quarter, the Nikolo-Perervinsk and the Nikolo-Ugreshsk. One of the chief towers of the Kremlin was named the Nikolsk.
Many of the churches devoted to the saint were those established at market squares by Russian merchants, sea-farers and those who traveled by land, venerating the wonderworker Nicholas as a protector of all those journeying on dry land and sea. They sometimes received the name among the people of “Nicholas soaked.”
Many village churches in Russia were dedicated to the wonderworker Nicholas, venerated by peasants as a merciful intercessor before the Lord for all the people in their work. And in the Russian land Saint Nicholas did not cease his intercession. Ancient Kiev preserves the memory about the miraculous rescue of a drowning infant by the saint. The great wonderworker, hearing the grief-filled prayers of the parents for the loss of their only child, took the infant from the waters, revived him and placed him in the choir-loft of the church of Holy Wisdom (Hagia Sophia) before his wonderworking icon. In the morning the infant was found safe by his thrilled parents, praising Saint Nicholas the Wonderworker.
Many wonderworking icons of Saint Nicholas appeared in Russia and came also from other lands. There is the ancient Byzantine embordered image of the saint, brought to Moscow from Novgorod, and the large icon painted in the thirteenth century by a Novgorod master.
Two depictions of the wonderworker are especially numerous in the Russian Church: Saint Nicholas of Zaraisk, portrayed in full-length, with his right hand raised in blessing and with a Gospel (this image was brought to Ryazan in 1225 by the future wife of Prince Theodore, the Byzantine Princess Eupraxia, who perished in 1237 with her husband and infant son during the incursion of Batu); and Saint Nicholas of Mozhaisk, also in full stature, with a sword in his right hand and a city in his left. This recalls the miraculous rescue of the city of Mozhaisk from an invasion of enemies, through the prayers of the saint. It is impossible to list all the grace-filled icons of Saint Nicholas, or to enumerate all his miracles.
The Dutch and the Saint’s introduction to India:
How did Saint Nicholas become Santa Claus?
The Dutch continued to celebrate the feast day of Saint Nocholas on December 6. His legendary habit of secret giving especially to the children, made his feast as a day for gifting.
It was a common practice for children to put out their shoes the night before. In the morning, they would discover the gifts that St. Nicholas had left there for them. Dutch immigrants brought St. Nicholas, known to them as ‘Sint Nikolaas’ or by his nickname Sinterklaas, and the gift giving ways to America in the eighteenth century. Thereafter St. Nicholas went through many transformations in America. Eventually Sinterklaas became Santa Claus. Instead of giving gifts on December 6, he became a part of Christmas.
During those centuries, the red pastoral mantle of Bishop Nicholas turned to the loose robe of Santa Claus. Several European traditions contributed to his current legends such as residence in north-pole, travel on sleigh that was pulled by the reindeer named Rudolph, passage through smokestacks etc. The European invaders probably the Dutch introduced the concept of Santa Claus to India. He was accustomed to the Nazranis just as a legendary character not with any Christian or saintly background, because they were ignorant about Saint Nicholas at all.
Saint Nicholas in the Oriental Orthodox Churches:
St. Nicholas is venerated among the Oriental Orthodox Churches also but not as admired as in the Byzantine tradition, because many are ignorant about the Saint.
In Syriac tradition he is known as Mar Nikolavos or as Mar Sokha, the Episcopes of Myra. Even though the Malankara Nazranis had West Syriac relations from the seventeenth century onwards, St. Nicholas was unfamiliar to them even at the end of the twentieth century.
But St. Nicholas was mentioned in several Church almanacs of the Nazranis from the eighteenth century onwards. The almanac written in 1795 CE on the south wall of old Chathannoor church, mentions Dhanu 6 according to Malayalam Era as the feast of Mar Nikolovas. Interestingly, the same date is marked as the feast of Mar Sokha, the Episcopes of Myra in the almanac published in 1872 CE by Fr. Edavazhikkal Philipose Cor-episcopa. It is repeated in the almanac published by Fr. Karuchira Geevarghese Remban (later Catholicos Baselius Geevarghese 1) in 1906 and 1907 CE. Since the feast of St. Nicholas was not mandatory according to the West Syriac tradition and there is no church here dedicated to him, the Nazranis were oblivious of Mar Nikolavos.
In between, the holy relics of St. Nicholas reached Kerala in 1895 CE through St. Gregorios of Parumala, the first canonized Indian Saint. He was on a pilgrimage to Jerusalem as the guest of Geevarghese Mar Gregorios, the West Syriac metropolitan of Jerusalem that year. He was accommodated at St. Mary’s monastery of the Syriac Orthodox Church. In his travelogue ‘Oorslem Yaathra’ (The Journey of Jerusalem) published in 1895…
(At St. Mark’s) on the south wall within the railings, the holy relics of abundant Saints and very tiny fraction of the cross are kept. Upon my request, father (Bishop of Jerusalem) had given me a few of them….
On his return, St. Gregorios of Parumala handed over six of them to Fr. Konat Mathen Malpan (later Cor-episcopa) along with the gospels copied by him in Syriac. This offering was a mark of respect to his guru (teacher) Metropolitan Konat Geevarghese Mar Yoolios who departed in 1884 CE. Even though St. Gregorios did not mention any Saint in particular in his travelogue, Fr. Mathen Malpan, the paternal grandnephew of Mar Yoolios, specifically mentioned all six he received including the relics of Mar Sokha, the Episcopes of Myra in his chronicles of the period 1895-1903 CE (Konat Mal. MS No. 54)
Konat family was functioning as the teachers of Syriac language and theology for several centuries. Fr. Abraham Malpan 1, a well-known scholar, shifted from Mammalassery to Pampakuda in Ernakulam District, Kerala. He built St. John of Ephesus Church there in 1824 CE and continued teaching the clerics. The holy relics offered by St. Gregorios were deposited in different plaques stating the content. In 1903 CE, they were placed in the cross tower in front of the Church, built along with Church.
Since then nobody bothered to link Mar Sokha with St. Nicholas until 1999 CE. No Churches were built in his name. His feast was never celebrated. In 1999, Dr. Kurian Thomas came across the almanacs mentioned above and a further research disclosed that both St. Nicholos and Mar Sokha, the Episcopes of Myra is the same person according to the Syriac tradition. The biography of St. Gregorios of Parumala revealed his offering to the Konat family in 1895.
Further search confirmed the links through the chronicles of Fr. Mathen Malpan. Through an article in the Christmas edition of Malayala Manorama, a vernacular daily, the present author announced this discovery in 1999.
Still the content of the casket is a mystery. Nobody knows what is there sealed in the casket. It could be a piece of bone, teeth or nail; nobody knows. Fr. Dr. Johns Abraham Konat, the grandson of Fr. Mathen Malpan and the present custodian of the relics have no intention to examine it. It will remain a mystery like the gifts Christmas Appoopa (father) puts in the children’s stockings.
The first cross tower in India in the name of Saint Nicholas along with other Saints, other than the Pampakuda (Kerala) cross tower was consecrated on 30th November, 2018 at St. Thomas Orthodox Church, Madurai, Tamilnadu by H.G. Dr. Yuhanon Mar Diascoros.
This article reveals that Santa Claus is not just an imaginary hero, as we all have dreamt off. St.Nicholos (Santa Claus) is a real life hero, who has been a refuge and intercessor to many. And now, after knowing these facts about our Christmas Appoopa, we have the real reason to explain to our little kids of the wonders of this wonder worker, and inspire them to seek for the intercession of this great Saint and wonderworker. May his intercession be a strong refuge to all.
1. Eventual Annals of Nazranis by Meledath Kurian Thomas
2. Spiritual Fragrance Publishing of Russian Orthodox Church