To celebrate the Christmas season, I thought I would share an act of iconoclasm that in a way is re-enacted in many corners of the world at this time of year. It is the story of how Saint Nicholas of Sion cuts down a ‘Christmas’ tree. Except that this tree is possessed by a demon and worshipped by pagans. Truthfully, the Saint Nicholas in question here should not be confused with Saint Nicholas of Myra (also in Lycia, hence why many hagiographers probably did confuse the two), more commonly known as ‘Santa Claus’, and the story has nothing to do with Christmas or Christmas trees. Rather, the story represents a rather common topos in late antique hagiographies where the saint must face particularly powerful and demonic statues or, in this case, a kind of natural shrine.
The story is taken from the fascinating Life of Saint Nicholas of Sion (15-18, here presented in the translation by Ševčenko & Ševčenko):
15. One day there came men from the village of Plakoma, who fell down before holy Nicholas and said: “O servant of God, on our land there is a sacred tree in which dwells the spirit of an unclean idol, that destroys both men and fields….May Your Holiness yield to our entreaties and deign to come with us and fell it, so that God, Lover of mankind, may through your prayers drive out the unclean spirit dwelling in that tree, and the fields and the district may be at peace and find respite.
16. Being so strongly urged by the inhabitants of the village of Plakoma, Nicholas, the servant of God, offered prayers, and came to the spot where the tree stood. Seeing the tree, holy Nicholas said: “Is this the sacred tree?” In response, the men of the aforementioned fields said to him: “Yes, Lord.” And Nicholas, the servant of God said: “What are those gashes in the tree?” They said to him: “Some man of old came to fell the tree with two hatchets, and an axe. And as he began to fell it, the unclean spirit snatched away the blades, and slaughtered the man, so that his grave was found at the roots of the tree.” Offering prayers, the servant of God Nicholas – there being a crowd of nearly three hundred men, women and children to watch the workings of God, for none believed that such a tree, being sacred, was about to be felled – then the servant of God Nicholas knelt and prayed for two hours. And rising, he enjoined the men around saying: “In the name of our Lord Jesus Christ and of Holy Sion, come here, try and cut it down.”
17. A shiver ran through all those who were standing around holy Nicholas, and no one dared so much as to look at the tree. Then the servant of God Nicholas said: “Give me the blade and I will cut it down myself in the name of my Lord.” Taking the blade, the servant of God Nicholas made the sign of the cross over it and struck the sacred tree seven times. The unclean spirit saw that the servant of God Nicholas had power from God, and when the tree was struck by Nicholas’ holy hands, the unclean spirit cried out, saying: “Woe be unto me: I made for myself an ever-expanding dwelling in this cypress tree and have never been overcome by anyone; and now the servant of Nicholas is putting me to flight, and no longer will I be seen in this place. For not only has he expelled me from my dwelling in the tree, but he is driving me from the confines of Lycia, with the help of Holy Sion.”
18. When he was about to fell this sacred tree, the servant of God said: “Assemble with one accord up the slope on the North side.” For it was expected that the tree would fall to the West. The unclean spirit [akatharton] thougt at that moment to frighten the crowd. And he made the tree lean toward the North, up the slope where the crowd stood watching, so that they all screamed with fear in one voice, saying: “Servant of God, the tree is coming down on top of us, and we will perish.” The servant of God Nicholas made the sign of the cross over the tree, pushed it back with his two hands, and said to the sacred tree: “In the name of my Lord Jesus Christ I command you: turn back (in the other direction) and go down where God has ordained you.” Forthwith, the tree swayed back by the will of God and moved toward the West, where it crashed. From that time on, the unclean spirit was no longer seen within those parts. And they all glorified God, saying: “One is God, who gave power to his servant against the unclean spirits.”
The story continues with how the tree was sawed up (with some difficulty, of course) and moved to the shrine of Holy Sion (18-19).
The Life of Saint Nicholas of Sion. Text and translation by Ihor Ševčenko and Nancy Patterson Ševčenko. Brookline, MA. 1984.
Also thanks to my brother Thomas for providing the above photo of the Christmas tree on Grand Place in Brussels.