Behind the Santa Suit

Saint Nicholas

Saint Nicholas

It’s uncommonly warm for a Sunday morning in December. When I step off the train in Yonkers, New York, I hear “Timmy!” and I see a woman’s arm waving across the street. The arm belongs to Aunt Helen, my grandfather’s sister who is part of the Slovak-American community here in Yonkers. I walk across the street to her, carrying a tin of caramel popcorn. When I reach Aunt Helen’s station wagon, I give her a booming smile and hug, and I tell her Merry Christmas.

I don’t normally say Merry Christmas, because Christmas is religious and I am not. But it’s okay with Aunt Helen. Not only does she celebrate Christmas as a devout Eastern Catholic, the patron saint of her church is St. Nicholas, the man behind the Santa suit. Last week she called to invite me to a special church service in honor of St. Nick. Despite living in Brooklyn, only 25 miles south of Yonkers, until this morning I haven’t come up on the train to see Aunt Helen’s side of the family.

I haven’t been to Aunt Helen’s Slovak-American church, and I don’t remember my grandfather ever talking about it.  I’m one-quarter Slovak because of him. He grew up in Yonkers, peeling potatoes before school every morning to help support the family. Later he left town, married a British-American, and became a generic-brand Protestant. Unlike her older brother, Aunt Helen stayed in Yonkers and embraced the Slovak-American culture and community, especially the religion.

Passing through downtown Yonkers, Aunt Helen drives slowly. She shows me the abandoned shells of the carpet factories where my great-grandmother, who emigrated from Slovakia as a 26-year-old single mother, once worked. “This neighborhood used to be our people,” she says. I am looking through the windshield at dozens of gray, low-slung housing blocks in the southwestern part of town. “The Irish lived there and bettered themselves and moved out,” she tells me. “Then it was our turn, the Slovaks, the Poles, the Russians. We lived in the ghetto, the Eastern European ghetto.”

When the station wagon is parked, I stretch my legs and examine the sign on the street for St. Nicholas of Myrna Byzantine Catholic Church. Aunt Helen’s ethnic-brand religion is Eastern Catholic, not Roman Catholic. When I ask her, she explains that her church belongs to a lesser-known strain of Catholicism and, of course, is loyal to the Pope.

As Aunt Helen walks through the church doors, I follow her and we sit together near the front. I scan the gilded church to find the church’s namesake. The old man is easy to find. His curly white beard and red crown are familiar, though his face is thinner and more serious than Santa Claus. He stares ahead with pursed lips and deep eyes, encircled with a 10-foot garland of artificial greenery and red felt bows. “That’s St. Nicholas,” Aunt Helen whispers. She nods toward the front of the church. “Next to him is Jesus, and the Blessed Mother and Child, and then John the Baptist.” On the left by John the Baptist is an American flag and several tiers of red, white and blue candles. On the right by St. Nick is a well-lit artificial tree, an electric sideshow to the main event at the altar.

I went to Mass just once before. During a vacation years ago, I woke up early on a Sunday morning and went to a Roman Catholic Mass on a whim. I remember sitting in the back of the church, struggling to follow along. Now I’m sitting in my first Byzantine Catholic Mass, feeling lost. Aunt Helen moves from Slovak to English as she recites prayers in the sing-song manner of Eastern Christians. I skim the church literature on my lap, which explains that St. Nicholas became known as “the patron of sailors and travelers on the sea” because “God almost immediately answered his prayers.” I’m wondering how one thing connects to another. Did my Slovak ancestors, “our people” in Aunt Helen’s mind, feel grateful to St. Nick after crossing the ocean to America? Is that why the church is named after him? Is that why Santa Claus travels everywhere?

With the Mass approaching the climax, Aunt Helen reminds me that I don’t fully belong there. She whispers, sounding worried, “You won’t be able to receive the sacrament.” I nod my head. Perhaps, I think, it would be different if my grandfather had stayed in his hometown. Perhaps I would have a deeper understanding of the one-quarter of myself that comes from Slovakia; perhaps I would be able to speak Slovak on Sunday mornings and cook old-world-recipe sauerkraut for my future descendants. Perhaps, I don’t know.

At the end of the Mass, Aunt Helen leans over again. “This time you’re allowed to participate,” she says kindly. “It’s a special blessing with oil from the crypt of St. Nicholas.” I nod and walk up the aisle behind her faithful, shuffling feet. I keep a blank face as the priest crosses a drop of oil on my forehead, and a vague, foreign sense of guilt passes over me. If I don’t believe in the supernatural powers of St. Nick, should I pretend to receive his blessing?

I walk out of church with Aunt Helen. We go down the sidewalk together to the station wagon. As she walks around to the driver’s side, I wait on the passenger side. When she looks at me, I smile toward her. When she looks away, I stretch my hand and rub out the oil in a quick, guilty motion. St. Nick is gone.

Tim Lash is a writer living in Brooklyn. His work has appeared in the Washington Post and other publications.