Postcard from Valencia, Spain: Why women love Santa Claus

In Spain, women seeking intercession from Saint Nicholas (270-343) traditionally walk from their homes to the nearest church dedicated to him to pray on three consecutive Mondays. If that distance is too great or their health too frail, any church with a statue of him can be substituted. In Italy, young women yearning to find appropriate mates leave three coins for Saint Nicholas in the donation box.

Their devotion stems back to an early generous action by the young man who would become a bishop and saint. Nicholas was born into an affluent family in Turkey in the second half of the second century, but his parents died of the plague. Their death left him alone, but wealthy.

As the story goes, a man living nearby had three daughters of marriageable age (an age now categorized as well underage) for whom he had not been able to find suitable suitors willing to pay the dowries he desired. Upon hearing the man planned to obtain funds by launching his daughters into careers of prostitution, Nicholas anonymously left a cloth bundle of gold on three consecutive nights at the man’s house – sparing the young women (children, if you prefer) from subjection to their father’s plans for their future.

He is valued as the patron saint of many causes, children being the major one. Possibly his role as protector of children stems from the above story and also a gruesome tale of a child he saved from a crazed butcher. It’s not hard to imagine how the bearded image and his sly deposit of sacks bearing gifts evolved into American traditions relating to, as we affectionately call him, Santa Claus.

Saint Nicholas is the patron saint of brewers, perhaps because he took grain from the rich to give to the poor. Maybe grain needed to make beer? Sailors prayed to entrust him to guide their ships through storms, after Nicholas was said to have brought a sailor back to life after the man fell from the mast of his ship in rough seas.

The purported powers of Saint Nicholas’ remains are so potent, daring military maneuvers have been made to obtain them. After the Turks took over Myra, sailors from Bari, Italy, staged a raid to seize his relics in 1087. Venetians later did the same to capture the few shards they had left behind. In Bari, the bones are said to exude myrrh, which smells like rosewater and has miraculous capabilities. The precious myrrh is collected in a flask annually on his day, December 8, and small vials are available for purchase.

Residents of Valencia are fortunate to have a major church dedicated to Saint Nicholas, and tourists are not allowed to interrupt the Monday visitations by the faithful praying for his assistance. The church was founded in the 13th century, but the interior was heavily baroqued up at the end of the 15th.

The church also houses an important statue of Saint Jude Thaddeus, the patron saint of lost causes, who attracts crowds seeking his intercession as well. Many of the Monday women are known to pause to pray to both, as some of their problems involve men who might be regarded as lost causes.

Postcard from Ravenna, Italy: ‘We three kings of Orient are?’

Detailed wish lists for newborns are commonplace online, but aromatic resins must have fallen out of popularity. Maybe because frankincense and myrrh are not stocked by retailers such as Babies ‘R’ Us. Most parents of today would welcome gold though.

These are the gifts presented in the manger by the three kings from the east who followed the star. The Mister’s mother, Virginia Hornor Spencer (1924-2000), would unroll handsome gold banners featuring the kings each year for the holidays, launching the annual trivia quiz to recall the names of the wise men.

The photo above eliminates the challenge by labeling them: Balthazar, Melchior and Gaspar. In this mosaic in Sant’ Apollinare Nuovo in Ravenna, the kings are followed by a parade of 22 virgins.

This church was constructed for Theodoric the Great (493-526), who, in addition to his own baptistery, wanted a private Arian chapel near his palace. He is credited with commissioning the top row of prophets lining the walls. Some of his Arian Christian mosaics were altered after the Byzantine branch of the Catholic Church recaptured Ravenna from what they considered barbaric heretics. The parades of the virgins and martyrs were added by the more mainstream Catholics.

Saint Apollinaris was an early bishop of Ravenna who supposedly suffered through a torture and release program practiced by Roman emperors against the early Christians. He endured beatings, hackings by knives, forced walks over hot coals, time in the dungeon and numerous expulsions from Ravenna before his final capture resulted in wounds from which he did not recover.

Around the year 900, the martyr’s relics were moved to this church, which was renamed in his honor with the “Nuovo” tag to distinguish it from the first church to house his remains as it was near the sea and prone to raids by pirates. Most of Saint Apollinaris’ parts are divided between the two Apollinare churches of Ravenna.

The cylindrical bell tower was added in the 9th or 10th century, and the marble porch was tacked onto the basilica in the 16th century. The altar and its dome were altered much later.

Postcard from Oaxaca, Mexico: Bite the baby; throw the party

three-kingsThe pair of skinny Santas on stilts (I know; I don’t comprehend their significance either.) who roamed the plaza in front of the Cathedral around Christmas have been replaced by itinerant trios of kings soliciting tips for family photos. This troupe was the only one around bearing gifts for Baby Jesus accompanied by the beasts (well, sort of) originally transporting them to the manger in Bethlehem on January 6.

Epiphany was always a holy day of obligation when I was growing up, another command day at church which fell within several weeks of a multitude of visits to church. But we weren’t rewarded with cake.

In Mexico, Saint Nicholas traditionally does not arrive bearing gifts for children on Jesus’ birthday. Children have to wait until the day Jesus received his presents – gold, frankincense and myrrh – delivered in tribute to him by the three kings. So, on January 6 in Mexico, Mass is followed by presents and a party with cake – rosca de reyes.

Shannon Costello's rosca de reyes

Shannon Costello’s rosca de reyes

The staff at the Library of the University of Texas at San Antonio has translated, along with helpful baking tips, a traditional kings’ cake recipe from Panes de Levadura by Josefina Velazquez de Leon, part of the collection of Mexican cookbooks, La Cocina Historica.

Not everyone in Oaxaca appears to make these from scratch. Boxes of the rings of cake have been flying off shelves in bakeries all over town.

Hidden inside each is a little figure representing Baby Jesus. If the piece you receive contains the nino, your family has to host the next fiesta specifically for Jesus on the calendar, Candelaria on February 2, or prepare the homemade tamales for the party (Whoa! I prefer the no-strings-attached prize in Cracker Jacks).

Candelaria is when all the Baby Jesuses housed by the faithful in their homes receive new clothes. Then, dressed in appropriate finery, all the little statues are carried to church to be blessed.

Hmmm. What should Jesus wear? Is Oaxaca ready to follow the fashion trends being set in San Cristobal de las Casas? Happy Kings’ Day.

And, if the kings have any gifts in mind for me, of the ancient trio, I’d prefer the gold.