If the Liver Birds decided to look down from their lofty perches today they would have seen a sea of red and white surging along The Strand as hundreds of scousers gathered for the annual Liverpool Santa Dash.
What more fitting a place to do a Santa Dash than Liverpool? Father Christmas is practically the patron saint of Liverpool, after all. Just a few hundred yards down the road from the hubbub and noise of the fun run you will find one of the most tranquil places in the city centre – the Old Churchyard of Our Lady and Saint Nicholas.
Long intertwined with the city’s maritime history, just a few centuries ago St Nicholas stood right on the shore of the Mersey; the road we call The Strand was the old beach of Liverpool and old paintings show waves crashing against the front wall of the churchyard. To reiterate that link between sea and church a spire was added as a navigational mark for shipping in the 18th Century.
Although most of the current building dates from just after WWII (the tower was the only bit to survive the blitz) there has been a holy place on this site for hundreds of years. Having previously dedicated to Mary, the ‘Star of the Sea’, around 1355 it was decided that a bigger church would be built on the site, with a new saint, St Nicholas, chosen to be its patron.
The church was partially rebuilt in the early 19th Century by respected architect Thomas Harrison, also responsible for Liverpool’s Lyceum building and dozens of other significant civic buildings in the North West.
St Nicholas himself was a fourth Century Bishop of Myra, in Turkey. He’s always been a popular saint; not only is he the patron of Liverpool but also of New York, Amsterdam, Naples, Portsmouth, sailors, dock workers, children, merchants and thieves – “the poor, lowly, despised and unwelcome” as St Nicholas’s Church refers to them.
One story tells of Nicholas being caught in a great storm when sailing to the Holy Land. St Nick, putting his faith in God, kneeled down on the open deck and prayed – miraculously the storm ceased and all was calm.
This led to him becoming known as the patron saint of sailors and for generations many Liverpool sailors, about to leave on a long and dangerous voyages, have popped into St Nick’s to say a quick prayer before setting off. The church still hosts services to commemorate significant maritime events and boasts gardens that incorporate maritime species.
How St Nicholas became the coke-swilling Santa Claus we recognise today is illustrated in the story of an old man in such penury that his three daughters were forced to contemplate working on the streets to survive.
Nicholas, wanting to save the young women from a life of sin, dropped three bags of gold down the chimney of thier house during the night, which landed in the girls’ stockings hanging by the fire. Nowadays we hang stockings on our fireplaces at Christmas in the hope that St Nick will drop a little gift in.
Even today in Europe St Nicholas’ Day is celebrated by gift-giving. His feast day is 5 December – just after the Santa Dash – when thousands of children across northern Europe wake up to see what ‘Sinter Klass’ has left in their stockings and shoes.
These customs were probably brought into Liverpool by immigrants seeking a better life here. Did they see our St Nick as their Sinter Klass? What can we read into the fact that Liverpool store Lewis’s had the world’s first Christmas grotto in 1879, originally staged as the ‘Christmas Fairyland’ in Bon Marche on Church Street?
It seems, despite the demise of Lewis’s last year, that the magic of the grotto is more powerful than mere global economics. The team of Lewis’s grotto makers have moved into Rapid Hardware – safeguarding this element of Liverpool’s history for future generations.
So, remember the story of St Nicholas when watching the dashing Santas; and the Lewis’s grotto and Our Lady and St Nicholas. And if you raise a glass on Christmas Day think too of Saint Nick in another of his many roles – the patron saint of brewers.