Kentish Santas

PUBLISHED: 15:29 17 November 2009 | UPDATED: 16:20 20 February 2013

Scene from the Chislehurst nativity tableau

Scene from the Chislehurst nativity tableau

Many people know that St Nicholas developed into 'Santa Claus'and is the patron saint of children – but he also has more causes than any other saint

Few churches can boast a link with Russia, but the Church of St Nicholas, Newington-next-Hythe can. On the south wall of the nave is a brass dated 1612 to Dr Christopher Reittingerus, a Hungarian who was physician to the Emperor of Russia, possibly, although its not indicated, even to Ivan the Terrible who died in 1584.
Links with the continent proliferate in Newington as the channel tunnel rail link stops just shy of St Nicholas church. The trees at the end of the churchyard screen the drop to the terminus. Newingtons French connexion is not new, however.
Up to about 1400, St Nicholas church was under the jurisdiction of the Convent of Guisnes in France. John Martin, organist and bellringer, says in his booklet about the church that the two small windows in the north wall of the nave are the oldest in the church. Fittingly, one of them depicts the churchs patron saint.
A stained-glass window of St Nicholas also appears in his church at Barfreston. The tiny image is relatively modern, being inserted in 1928 in memory of Rev James Gillman, rector of the parish 1836-1847, who was mainly responsible for restoring the church in 1840.
Appropriately, the saint is holding an image of the church. Barfreston is justly famous for its wealth of Norman carvings, but if it hadnt been for Gillman the church would have collapsed and its ancient decoration been lost.
St Nicholas Sturry also contains remnants of a Norman building, which is hardly surprising seeing as the village is on the Roman route from Canterbury to Reculver and once had its own Roman wharf on the river Stour. The church still includes two Norman windows and the pillars of the Norman chancel arch.

One medieval tradition was to elect a boy bishop to celebrate st Nicholas feast day

The top of the arch was changed in the 13th century. The village is very low lying and the church has had repeated problems with damp. Its rare that a choice of furniture can be attributed to the weather, but in this church modern chairs replace pews which suffered badly.
Water was also very important for the Church of St Nicholas, Ash-next-Sandwich. St Nicholas is the patron saint of sailors and the spire of the church used to be a landmark for shipping in the Downs; Trinity House helped pay for the spire to be kept in good repair. Opposite the church is Ship House flanked, appropriately, by Starboard House and Port House.
This St Nicholas is another church in Kent with cosmopolitan links. The saints statue in a niche on the south side of the chancel is French and modelled after the image in the Basilica of St Nicholas de Port, Lorraine, Nancy. It was presented to the church for the Easter Vigil, 2005 by Canon James Rosenthal founder of the St Nicholas Society UK/USA in memory of David J. Lochman MD.
The building itself may be very old, but the people who worship in it are not living in the past. Raymond Cooper, a member of the congregation, explains: On the first Sunday in December we hold a Toy Service which includes our local Scouts, Guides, Cubs and Brownies.
Together with all the other children in the congregation, they bring toys as gifts for disadvantaged children. We thus reverse the normally accepted arrangement in a way that emphasises Christian values. As it happens, this year the first Sunday in December is the sixth and thus the feast day for St Nicholas In many countries, children put out a shoe or hang up a stocking on 5 December rather than on Christmas Eve, for St Nicholas to fill on his saints day.
As St Nicholas was Bishop of Myra and the patron saint of children, one of the ancient medieval traditions to celebrate his feast day was to elect a boy bishop. The boy was chosen from the choir, often by senior figures in the church, but sometimes by his peers.
The duties of the boy bishop varied according to local custom, with some places emphasising the piety of the role, while others interpreted it as a once-a-year opportunity to relax normal rules. In 2007, St Nicholas-at-Wade resurrected the tradition and had their own boy bishop. The fact that she was a girl merely emphasised the topsy-turvy nature of the celebration.
The church of St Nicholas-at-Wade is enormous and dominates the village to which it has given its name. The family of Robert Bridges, poet laureate, lived locally and are commemorated in the Bridges Chapel to the left of the chancel. The tower of St Nicholas-at-Wade contains a ring of six bells said to be one of the finest in Kent.
Christmas is particularly special to St Nicholas, Chislehurst, too, as each Christmas Eve about 60 people prepare and enact an open-air nativity tableau. A crowd of around 600 gathers to watch the drama of Christs birth unfold, and join in with carols which punctuate the biblical account.
The lychgate becomes the stable, a low stage raises the performers enough to be seen and local members of the congregation mime the story. As there is no spoken narrative, none of the audience is excluded because theyre at the back and cant hear the words.
Peter Ridge, licensed lay reader, says: With St Nicholas as our patron saint, the church regards the tableau as a gift to the people of Chislehurst. Our Christian faith is based on historical events and the tableau reminds us that Jesus Christ came to earth as a real person, the ultimate gift to mankind, not a myth. Weve often heard it said that for some the tableau is the start of their Christmas.
The original St Nicholas was a fourth-century Byzantine Greek, famed for giving three penniless girls a bag of gold as a dowry so they could marry. His gift is the origin of the pawnbrokers sign of three gold balls.
We still commemorate St Nicholass gift in the bags of chocolate golden coins we hang on our Christmas trees. From St Nicholass secret gift, made without commitment in the hope that it will change lives, stems all the tales of Santa Claus. How lovely that our churches under the saints patronage are connected with a kindness and generosity which spans centuries.

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