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It seems that monuments honoring notables with charismatic gifts leave larger-than-life impressions upon viewers. Such is the experience studying photos of the thirty-foot sculpture of Martin Luther King Jr., commissioned by the Chinese sculptor Lei Yixin and erected at the West Potomac Park next to the National Mall in Washington, D.C. This was in 2011.

King’s star flamed with his nationwide support of the Montgomery bus boycott, in 1963, but sputtered with his blood-stained shirt on the balcony of the Lorraine Motel in 1968. For fifteen years, his biblical passion interfaced with racial segregation, poverty, human rights violations, and the Vietnam war—enhanced by his bass voice trained in oratory. Thousands joined sit-ins, marches, even suffered killings, burnings, beatings, and imprisonment. Deep was the hope for peace that swept our country.

Most remember pieces of King’s story, influencing the nightly news during those years.

But what did happen? In my perception, the MLK sculpture suggests a clue. Standing erect in suit and tie, his eyes piercing off into the future, his arms folded, his right hand clutching a sheaf of papers, he seems bound to the stone from which he was chiseled, his lower legs, unfinished. Seen from behind, the stone also casts a shadow; in the analytical psychology of Dr. C. G. Jung, the shadow symbolizes the undesirable aspects of our unconsciousness. That Dr. King was not immune to such aberrations is obvious. He had his enemies.

And grief spilled upon cracked sidewalks, just beginning to flower that April evening.

Many know the story of Santa Claus, but few know his precedent: St. Nicholas (289–343), born of wealthy parents in Turkey who died in an epidemic. His uncle, bishop of Patara took him in, raised him, and under his influence, Nichols was later ordained a priest. A pious man, he secretly gave away his inheritance to the poor.  

Thereafter, Nicholas continued selling gifts offered him and helping the poor, sick, and suffering. Stories of his generosity abounded

Three nights in a row, Nicholas had tossed bags of gold into a poor farmer’s hovel that landed in shoes next to the fireplace where they were drying. Nicholas knew that the farmer would have to sell his three daughters into servitude or prostitution, there being no dowry.

Even after Nicholas was named Bishop of Myra, with the challenging responsibilities of his office, he continued his secret alms-giving. So graced he was that he also became a miracle worker. He restored the lives of small children their father had soaked in brine until suitable to sell to the starving during the plague.

Nicholas also knew imprisonment under the Emperor Diocletian until released by Constantine in 325, after which he attended the Council of Nicaea and dealt with the Arian heresy.

Legends continued growing in Europe around this self-less man. Many imitated his practice of secret giving, honoring him on the day of his death, December 6, 343; he was only confirmed in sainthood in 1446 by Pope Eugene IV.

With the Protestant Reformation’s outlawing the veneration of the saints, Nicholas’s memory was only retained in the Netherlands where he was called Sinterklaas. Too important to leave behind, seventeen-century Dutch emigrants introduced Sinterklaas to New Amsterdam.

From Sinterklaas, Santa Claus slowly emerged, thanks to Clement Clark Moore’s 1820 poem, “An Account of a Visit from Santa Claus,” otherwise known as “The Night Before Christmas.” Then in 1881, Cartoonist Thomas Nash dressed Santa in a fur-trimmed red suit.

Today, many families still honor St. Nicholas’s practice of filling empty shoes near fireplaces or outside bedroom doors with goodies on his Feast Day.

Like bats, their wings compressed, clinging to ceilings of caves, copper leaves pose naked upon stringy branches of my London plane tree—their indecision severe whether to hold on or to let go. Occasional whisper-breezes interrupt their pondering, their listless pirouetting of pointed toes, but still the leaves hang. Most have already dropped, with additional shriveling and tearing and dismemberment.

The lesson is obvious.

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