Byzantine Catholic priest, once J.L. Hudsonâ€™s Santa, teaches others his true meaning
DETROIT â€” If anyone in the Metro area can speak with authority on the subject of St. Nicholas, the prototype for the better-known figure of Santa Claus, it would arguably be Fr. Joseph Marquis.
In fact, before he became a priest, Fr. Marquis was pretty close to being the authentic Santa for many thousands of Detroit-area children. Sure, there were Santas at suburban malls and ones who could be hired for childrenâ€™s Christmas parties, but they didnâ€™t fool many kids.
Most Detroiters of a certain age can testify that, when they were kids, the â€śrealâ€ť Santa was the one they went to see at J.L. Hudsonâ€™s big store in downtown Detroit, the one who arrived on the final float of the Thanksgiving Day Parade, welcomed to Hudsonâ€™s on live television by Christmas Carol and given the key to the city by the mayor.
For the last 12 years of Hudsonâ€™s sponsorship of the parade, Fr. Marquis was that Santa, and he continued in the role another six years, until 1989, under the paradeâ€™s subsequent sponsors.
He also portrayed Santa with The Four Tops and the Detroit Symphony Orchestra, and is a member of the Santa Claus Hall of Fame in Santa Claus, Ind.
One might even say playing Santa Claus is in his blood, or as Fr. Marquis puts it: â€śAfter a while, you get red and green corpuscles.â€ť
A late vocation, Fr. Marquis entered seminary after his glory days as Hudsonâ€™s Santa, and has now been a priest for seven years. He serves as pastor of Sacred Heart (Byzantine) Parish in Livonia.
Fr. Marquis, 63, is far from done with Santa, however. Each October he conducts a weeklong workshop for those who will be portraying Santa Claus or St. Nicholas, drawing students from across the country to learn the story of St. Nicholas of Myra and how the image of the fourth-century Christian bishop evolved into the secularized â€śjolly old elfâ€ť of contemporary popularity.
The St. Nicholas Institute was created to harmonize with the Year of Faith, Fr. Marquis said.
â€śWeâ€™re about getting back to basics in order to reclaim the historical figure behind the popular image of Santa Claus,â€ť Fr. Marquis said, adding that St. Nicholas lived from 270 to 343 A.D., dying on Dec. 6, which remains his feast day.
â€śHe was bishop of Myra, in Asia Minor, now in modern-day Turkey. He is reputed to have lived virtue to a heroic degree, and was present at the First Council of Nicaea,â€ť he said.
But it was the bishopâ€™s anonymous generosity that forever was to associate St. Nicholas with the spirit of giving at Christmastime, he said. Born into a well-to-do family, he dispersed his fortune through acts of charity, such as supplying bags of gold to girls who couldnâ€™t marry for lack of a dowry.
St. Nicholas had to endure hardship for his fidelity to the Christian faith, serving seven years in prison during the persecution under the Emperor Diocletian.
â€śBut memories of his goodness outlived him, and he was venerated very early on after his death,â€ť Fr. Marquis said.
The devotion to St. Nicholas spread, and his bones were taken for safekeeping â€” or stolen in what Fr. Marquis calls an act of â€śholy theftâ€ť â€” in 1097, to be re-interred in Bari, Italy.
The figure of St. Nicholas began undergoing the â€śextreme makeover,â€ť as Fr. Marquis puts it, to Santa Claus largely as a result of the Protestant Reformation. His bishopâ€™s vestments were modified into a fur-trimmed red suit, his bishopâ€™s crozier into a candy cane.
In Holland, he became Sinter Klaas, and Dutch settlers brought him to America. And so, there he was when the practice of celebrating Christmas became widespread in the early 19th century. The Puritans and some other Protestant sects were opposed to the celebration of Christmas, so it was mostly only Catholics, Anglicans and Lutherans who observed it.
But all that began to change in the early 1800s. Fr. Marquis credits Clement Mooreâ€™s famous 1822 poem, â€śA Visit from St. Nicholas,â€ť as playing a major role in promoting a Santa Claus-style image of St. Nicholas, and then editorial cartoonist Thomas Nastâ€™s Santa Claus drawing later in the century as helping fix the image in peopleâ€™s minds.
Fr. Marquis would like to see a greater awareness of the Christian roots of the popular image, and a greater understanding of the St. Nicholas story.
â€śBut no matter what he is called, his spirit is still the same,â€ť he said.