St. Nicholas the Necromancer: Christmas Spirits, Part 2

 

Saint Nicholas of Myra is the real life origin of our Santa Klaus. Yes Virginia there is a Santa Claus.

While I normally focus my ruminations on strange doings below the Mason-Dixon Line, this go round we are casting our net farther afield.  

As we all know–or y’all should know–St. Nicholas, an orthodox Christian saint, has as his special domain is Yuletide and that in particular he is the patron saint of children.

How St. Nicholas became the patron of children is where the supernatural weirdness enters the tale.

The story goes (and who am I to question Holy Mother Church in matters of faith).  That St. Nicholas, the bishop of Myra, in Lycia an ancient kingdom in Anatolia (modern Turkey), had a strong reputation for piety and good works.  Like St. Valentine, he was known to give young unmarried girls money for their dowry, so they could get married instead of being sold to a brothel by their father (yes Virginia, times were tough back then).  To this day in some places, on his feast they still give bags of chocolate wrapped in gold foil to make them look like money.

St. Nicholas returns the three boys from the dead, a miracle which made him patron saint of children.
St. Nicholas returns the three boys from the dead, a miracle which made him patron saint of children.

One day, news came of a terrible crime.  Three young children had been murdered and their bodies were found pickled by a fiend named Garum, who bore a strange resemblance to Peter Lorrie in M.  Why the killer pickled them is a mite obscure, but the general theory is that he pickled them to prepare their flesh for being turned into meat pies (or the Roman equivalent)—à la Sweeney Todd.

Arriving on the scene of the crime, Old Saint Nick was anything but jolly at what he found.  The children were most thoroughly dead—some renditions of his life claim they had already been chopped into cutlets in preparation for cooking.  Then Saint Nicholas did something no one expected.  He reanimated the dead corpses of the three children and reunited them with their grieving parents.

St. Nick raising the boys back to life.  From the version of the story by Anatole France (1909).
St. Nick raising the boys back to life. From the version of the story by Anatole France (1909).

According to the version told by Anatole France, an angel appeared to Nick and bade him lay his hands on the pickle vat:

The angel said:

“Nicolas, son of God, lay your hands on the salting-tub, and the three children will be resuscitated.”

     The blessed Nicolas, filled with horror, pity, zeal, and hope, gave thanks to God, and when the innkeeper reappeared with a jug in either hand, the Saint said to him in a terrible voice:

“Garum, open the salting-tub!”

Whereupon, Garum, overcome by fear, dropped both his jugs and the saintly Bishop Nicolas stretched out his hands, and said:

“Children, arise!”

At these words, the lid of the salting-tub was lifted up, and three young boys emerged.

“Children,” said the Bishop, “give thanks to God, who through me, has raised you from out the salting-tub.”

The murderous innkeeper ran screaming into the dark and stormy night and has not been seen since.

Saint Nicholas also performed other feats of magic/miracles.  One time, while traveling at sea a terrible tempest arose and his sailing ship was in danger of sinking.  Again Old Nick stretched forth his hands over the waters and the sea was immediately calmed.  It is because of these aforementioned good works and miracles that St. Nicholas is not only the patron saint of children, but mariners, virgins and prostitutes.  This is why you will see icons of St. Nicholas with a boat in his arms and sometimes with gold balls.  The gold balls are a bit enigmatic, but either are analogs to the sack of coins he gives to virgins for their dowries or as rewards to his more shady female devotees for their devotion to him.  The gold balls may also relate to him being the patron saint of pawnbrokers, although how he took them under his wing is beyond me.

The notion that St. Nick is always a “jolly old elf” has been promoted mostly by the corporate types using him as a marketing ploy to commercialize a season which should be celebrating the advent of Jesus and the triumph of light over dark.  In fact, St. Nicholas had a bit of a temper if you got on his bad side.  During one church council, the bishops and other church officials were hotly debating the Arian Heresy, at the time being actively spread by a priest name Arius, who denied the divinity of Christ.  Well, the “debate” got so heated that “Jolly Old St. Nick” hauled off and punched Arius, knocking him down on the ground and out for the count.  I’m surprised that St. Nicholas isn’t also the patron saint of prize fighters.

Now a person who raises the dead from the grave for any purpose is by definition a necromancer and is necromancy is considered the blackest of the Black Arts.  That Jolly Old Saint Nicholas had the power (albeit God-given) to raise the dead speaks volumes about his spiritual (ie magical) abilities.  He may well be a merry old soul, but he is also not someone to get on the bad side of.

Krampus seems to take particular pleasure in abusing young women, to judge by the images of him.
Krampus is St. Nicholas’ “helper” who punishes bad girls and boys.

One hint that there is a darker side to Old Saint Nick is his “helper” the Krampus.  You never hear about Krampus in the U.S., but in Austria and Germany they know better.  One night on the Jimmy Fallon Show, Christophe Waltz gave American audiences a short education about Krampus. While the “elf on a shelf” is merely a snitch for Santa, Krampus is his enforcer—kind of like what happens if you don’t pay the Mafia loan-shark what you owe him.  The best way to describe Krampus is if Bigfoot had sex with the Devil and they had a child together, who took some really bad LSD, Krampus would be the result.  This creature is seriously demented.

If Saint Nicholas comes with “praise and presents and wisdom,”  Krampus comes with a stick and a bag and if you’re bad you get tossed in the bag and hit with a stick.  Actually, that is the least that Santa’s not so jolly helper will do to you.

More of Krampus' hair pulling of braided hair.  That in modern Austria young men who dress up as Krampus are  filled with spirits that are more alcoholic than spiritual, may explain why they target comely females for hair pulling.
More of Krampus’ hair pulling of braided hair. That in modern Austria young men who dress up as Krampus are filled with spirits that are more alcoholic than spiritual, may explain why they target comely females for hair pulling.

He is fond of pulling pretty girl’s golden braids and doing God knows what else to them when no one is looking, and there are even some hints that Krampus has cannibal tendencies, like the aforementioned innkeeper.

Krampus roasting the hearts of naughty girls and boys.
Krampus roasting the hearts of naughty girls and boys.

Although it is not widely mentioned, St. Nicholas the Necromancer is held in great awe among practitioners of Voodoo, where he is identified with the African entity Gran Solé or in the Santeria Cult, Gran Soler.  In the Spanish speaking lands of the Caribbean, Gran Soler and San Nicolas del Sol are one and the same.  Which brings us to why St. Nicholas is connected to Christmas in the first place.  No one actually knows when Jesus was born, but the early Church fathers placed his birthday around the same time as the Winter Solstice–the pagan feast of Sol Invictus, the unconquered Sun.  All fall, the days grow shorter and shorter, and the sun is “dying.”  But with the Winter Solstice the dying ceases and the sun returns from the “dead.”   St. Nicholas the Necromancer is closely tied with this annual miracle of nature.

 

Sol Invictus, the Unconquered Sun, closely tied to the Winter Solstice and Saint Nicholas.
Sol Invictus, the Unconquered Sun, closely tied to the Winter Solstice and Saint Nicholas.

That Nicholas of the Sun can raise the dead at will connects him closely with the Voodoo cult of the zombie as well.  Imagine, if you will, that with St. Nicholas/Gran Solé’s help, at a wave of the hand you could summon an army of reanimated corpses back from the dead to do your will—what kind of power would you wield?  Fortunately, that has not come to pass—yet.

So, let us hope you did not trample too many people on Black Friday, or run over too many pedestrians in your haste for a parking space.  You better be good, you better be nice and better think twice–and forget about the sugar plums and spice–lest Krampus and St. Nicholas the Necromancer decide to teach you a lesson you’ll never forget.

 

Little Saint Nick and his wingman, Krampus, tearing up the highways in their Harley (actually more like a BMW bike).
Little Saint Nick and his wingman, Krampus, tearing up the highways in their Harley (actually more like a BMW bike).

For more weirdness from the land of cotton, see Strange Tales of the Dark and Bloody Ground and Dixie Spirits.

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Strange Tales of the Dark and Bloody Ground: True Tales from the Haunted Hills of the Mid South
GHOSTS AND HAUNTS OF TENNESSEE
Ghosts and Haunts of Tennessee. True haunting tales of the Mid South
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The Ship of Yule: The Twelve Ghosts of Christmas, 9

The doomed schooner Rouse Simmons, known as The Christmas Tree Ship.
The doomed schooner Rouse Simmons, known as The Christmas Tree Ship.

In his famous ballad, The Wreck of the Edmond Fitzgerald, Gordon Lightfoot posed the question, “does anyone know where to love of God goes, when the gales of November come early?” The sad fact is that not only that ship, but many other vessels that ply the Great Lakes have fallen prey to the unpredictable weather that besets the great northern waters. No fate was more sad, nor more tragic, nor its aftermath more eerie, that the doom of the Christmas Tree Ship.

For many years it was a tradition on the northern waters that one or another schooner, or similar sailing craft, would sail north, cut a load of fragrant fresh evergreens and then sail southward to Chicago to eager families awaiting the ship’s arrival to put up a tree in their home. It was a long-standing tradition and the arrival of the Christmas Tree Ship came to be an annual ritual in Chicagoland, and its arrival always marked the beginning of the Christmas season there.

November of 1912 started off no different than any other year. The schooner Rouse Simmons that year made the journey to the northlands, where the crew cut the trees and hauled them onboard, ‘til the deck was stacked high with them. The skipper, Herman Schuenemann, was known locally as “Captain Santa:” a gruff old salt, he had a heart of gold and sold his trees direct to the people on the docks, even giving some free to the needy who had not the money to buy them.

That November was a particularly bountiful harvest. They say some worried deckhands asked the captain if they may have cut too many, to which he is said to have replied, “don’t worry boys, the folks waiting on the Clark Street docks will buy ‘em all!” They say some of the sailors, looking at the red sunset on the horizon, refused to take ship with Captain Santa and stayed behind.

On November 23, 1912 the good ship Rouse Simmons set sail, rounding the Upper Peninsula and making its way south towards Chicago. They were making good time, they say, when foul winter hit. It was one of those gales that Gordon Lightfoot warned about; high winds bearing cold, cold air and more snow and ice than you would expect at that time of the year. The rigging became encased in crystal sheaths and impossible to use, while the sails were torn to shreds by the howling icy winds. Top heavy with trees, the ship was listing to one side when folks along the shores of Lake Michigan caught sight of her.

Folk near Two Rivers, Wisconsin, could see the crew from shore, begging and pleading for help. Though it was worth a man’s life to try, the folks on shore launched a boat to rescue the crew. They caught a glimpse of the ship in the tossing seas, but then it became lost to view. Amidst the fog, the snow and the sleet, they couldn’t find the missing ship and returned to shore, lest they too share its doom.

Weighed down with ice-laden trees on deck, taking water and her sails in tatters, the Rouse Simmons went down off the coast of Wisconsin. But though she disappeared between the waves that year, that was not the last folk on the lakes saw of her. For weeks after the ship went down, the ship and its skipper kept being sighted on the lake, and well into December she was expected to land any day, simply delayed at some port, they thought. What those folk saw on the lake has never been explained, as the Rouse Simmons by that time was on the lake bottom with all her crew.

Like any good Flying Dutchman, however, there are continuing reports of an old three-masted schooner sighted on stormy nights, especially in late November; but the ship over the years has continued to send physical reminders as well.

For years afterwards, pieces of Christmas Trees would wash ashore or come up in fishermen’s nets on Lake Michigan. One time, a message in a bottle washed up ashore, supposedly the last message from Captain Santa. Another time, a local fishing boat hauled up in its nets the wallet of Captain Santa himself. Somehow, the good ship Rouse Simmons just would not go away.

True, divers did eventually find the wreck at the bottom of the lake, but no sign of the crew was found aboard, and reports of a ghostly sailing ship, tossed upon angry inland seas continue to be told. Who knows, perhaps some day, some way, the ghosts of Captain Santa and his crew will finally make it back to port in time for Christmas.

For more classic ghost stories, see Strange Tales of the Dark and Bloody Ground, Dixie Spirits, and my latest book, Ghosts and Haunts of Tennessee.

Christmas Spirits Part 1

 

St. Nicholas is real; originally a Christian Bishop known for his generosity, he is the patron saint of children and his spirit serves as their protector. Sailors have also adopted him as their patron as well.13th Century icon from St. Caherine's Monestary.
Originally a Christian Bishop known for his generosity, he is the patron saint of children in both the Eastern and Western churches. His spirit serves as their protector. By the way, Sailors have also adopted him as their patron as well. (13th Century icon from St. Catherine’s Monastery).

 Before the Yuletide Season fades away, just bit about Christmas Spirits–I mean REAL spirits–apparitions, ghosts and assorted paranormal encounters associated with Christmas and the Solstice season.

First on the list?  Why Santa Claus of course! He goes by many names: Americans know him as Santa Claus, but also goes by Father Christmas, Papai Noel, Sinter Klaas, Babbo Natale, Pere Noel and a whole slew more monikers around the world.

Foremost among the Spirits of Christmas is St. Nicholas himself.

I know: you don’t think of Jolly Old Saint Nick as a ghost. .  While you may not think of him as a ghost per se, the truth is he is a spirit, and at one time was a living, breathing person who walked the earth.

So, to paraphrase the famous essay in the September 21, 1897, edition of The (New York) Sun, yes, Virginia, there is a Santa Claus.  That, after centuries he is overlain with rich myth and legend and his duties have grown exponentially, is understandable; but he is very real.

St. Nicholas was born in Anatolia (modern Turkey) about 350 miles northwest of Bethlehem, in Patara, sometime around AD 270.  He was at one time bishop of Myra, another town in Asia Minor and he is first and foremost the patron saint of children.

For those unversed in Orthodox beliefs and practices, Christian saints are generally referred to in the present tense, for although their physical form is no more, their spirit continues to dwell among as, much as any ghost or spirit may. they are known to appear at various times and perform miracles–it’s what they do, after all.

Another thing about saintly apparitions: they can appear at two places at the same time. Given that knack, visiting every home where children reside in one night if you have no physical form is not so difficult a trick .

Even in ancient times St. Nick was known for his generosity. One story told of him was that, on hearing that three maidens were too poor to afford a dowry and therefore couldn’t get married, he anonymously threw a bags of gold through the window into their home.

After first two girls were married their father became curious as to whom he mysterious benefactor was and tried to watch out for him; so when the third was due to wed, to prevent his identity being found out, St. Nicholas threw the bag of gold down the chimney.

So, girls, if you’re very, very good, perhaps jolly old Saint Nick will throw a bag of gold down your chimney–wouldn’t that be better than a Barbie?

Of course, like the Blessed Mother (more about her and the BVM phenomena another time), Saint Nicholas adapts his clothing and customs to the particular country he’s in.

Our vision of him borrows a lot from German notions about Christmas, and some of his iconic imagery has more to do with Norse Mythology than Christianity. In more recent years, sadly, the formerly slender Jolly Old Elf seems to have gained way too much weight and seems to be doing a lot of commercial appearances for large corporations.

Nevertheless, despite all the naysaying and negativity about him these days, Santa is as real as any other saint.

So to all those cynics out there who scoff at ghosts and such things and would have you doubt Saint Nicholas as well; may you all get lumps of coal this Christmas.  Ho, ho ho!

For more authentic ghosts stories and true accounts of apparitions, go grab a copy or three of  Strange Tales of the Dark & Bloody Ground or Ghosts and Haunts of Tennessee.