Sunday, November 18, 2012

From crozier to candy cane: the real St. Nicholas

November 15, 2012
By , The Michigan Catholic

Fr. Joseph Marquis, pastor of Sacred Heart (Byzantine) Parish in Livonia, has dedicated the St. Nicholas Institute, held each year in October, to the study of the real man behind the red suit and beard.

DETROIT — If anyone in the Metro area can speak with authority on the subject of St. Nicholas, the prototype for the better-known figure of Santa Claus, it would arguably be Fr. Joseph Marquis.
In fact, before he became a priest, Fr. Marquis was pretty close to being the authentic Santa for many thousands of Detroit-area children. Sure, there were Santas at suburban malls and ones who could be hired for children’s Christmas parties, but they didn’t fool many kids.
Most Detroiters of a certain age can testify that, when they were kids, the “real” Santa was the one they went to see at J.L. Hudson’s big store in downtown Detroit, the one who arrived on the final float of the Thanksgiving Day Parade, welcomed to Hudson’s on live television by Christmas Carol and given the key to the city by the mayor.

In background, Joseph Marquis, before he was a priest, arrives as Santa Claus at J.L. Hudson’s in downtown Detroit on Thanksgiving Day 1977.
For the last 12 years of Hudson’s sponsorship of the parade, Fr. Marquis was that Santa, and he continued in the role another six years, until 1989, under the parade’s subsequent sponsors.
He also portrayed Santa with The Four Tops and the Detroit Symphony Orchestra, and is a member of the Santa Claus Hall of Fame in Santa Claus, Ind.
One might even say playing Santa Claus is in his blood, or as Fr. Marquis puts it: “After a while, you get red and green corpuscles.”
A late vocation, Fr. Marquis entered seminary after his glory days as Hudson’s Santa, and has now been a priest for seven years. He serves as pastor of Sacred Heart (Byzantine) Parish in Livonia.
Fr. Marquis teaches a class of 17 Santas and one Mrs. Claus from across the U.S. at the St. Nicholas Institute in Livonia in October.
Fr. Marquis, 63, is far from done with Santa, however. Each October he conducts a weeklong workshop for those who will be portraying Santa Claus or St. Nicholas, drawing students from across the country to learn the story of St. Nicholas of Myra and how the image of the fourth-century Christian bishop evolved into the secularized “jolly old elf” of contemporary popularity.
The St. Nicholas Institute was created to harmonize with the Year of Faith, Fr. Marquis said.
“We’re about getting back to basics in order to reclaim the historical figure behind the popular image of Santa Claus,” Fr. Marquis said, adding that St. Nicholas lived from 270 to 343 A.D., dying on Dec. 6, which remains his feast day.
St. Nicholas Institute
The St. Nicholas Institute espouses four core values:
  • Nicholas as our modelInspired by the selfless life of St. Nicholas of Myra, and the noble traditions associated with him, we seek to affirm the dignity of all persons as unique, unrepeatable gifts from God as we embody the joy and peace that flows from the Babe born in Bethlehem.
  • Openness to the Christmas SpiritSince the “Christmas Spirit” and the Holy Spirit are one in the same, we continually pray that we may be open to the very Selfsame Source that animated the life of the original “Santa Claus,” St. Nicholas.
  • Exercising compassionAs spiritual successors of St. Nicholas, we exercise a special compassion for: the poor (material or spiritual poverty), the orphaned, the sick, the marginalized and the forgotten.
  • Love for childrenWhether dressed in the guise of the benevolent bishop from Myra or a fur clad “elf,” we will treat each and every child (and “the young at heart”) with the same integrity, sensitivity and unconditional love that characterize “jolly old St. Nicholas.”

More information about the professional Santa training program of the St. Nicholas Institute is available at
“He was bishop of Myra, in Asia Minor, now in modern-day Turkey. He is reputed to have lived virtue to a heroic degree, and was present at the First Council of Nicaea,” he said.
But it was the bishop’s anonymous generosity that forever was to associate St. Nicholas with the spirit of giving at Christmastime, he said. Born into a well-to-do family, he dispersed his fortune through acts of charity, such as supplying bags of gold to girls who couldn’t marry for lack of a dowry.
St. Nicholas had to endure hardship for his fidelity to the Christian faith, serving seven years in prison during the persecution under the Emperor Diocletian.
“But memories of his goodness outlived him, and he was venerated very early on after his death,” Fr. Marquis said.
The devotion to St. Nicholas spread, and his bones were taken for safekeeping — or stolen in what Fr. Marquis calls an act of “holy theft” — in 1097, to be re-interred in Bari, Italy.
The figure of St. Nicholas began undergoing the “extreme makeover,” as Fr. Marquis puts it, to Santa Claus largely as a result of the Protestant Reformation. His bishop’s vestments were modified into a fur-trimmed red suit, his bishop’s crozier into a candy cane.
In Holland, he became Sinter Klaas, and Dutch settlers brought him to America. And so, there he was when the practice of celebrating Christmas became widespread in the early 19th century. The Puritans and some other Protestant sects were opposed to the celebration of Christmas, so it was mostly only Catholics, Anglicans and Lutherans who observed it.
But all that began to change in the early 1800s. Fr. Marquis credits Clement Moore’s famous 1822 poem, “A Visit from St. Nicholas,” as playing a major role in promoting a Santa Claus-style image of St. Nicholas, and then editorial cartoonist Thomas Nast’s Santa Claus drawing later in the century as helping fix the image in people’s minds.
Fr. Marquis would like to see a greater awareness of the Christian roots of the popular image, and a greater understanding of the St. Nicholas story.
“But no matter what he is called, his spirit is still the same,” he said.

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