St. Christopher was a Christian martyr who reputedly lived and died under the reign of the Roman Emperor Decius. Though he was martyred in the third century, St. Christopher was not widely-venerated until almost a thousand years later.
Christopher is one of many Christian proselytisers alleged to have been executed by the Roman Empire for religious reasons. Perhaps the most famous of his near-contemporaries was St. Pancras of Rome – a saint well-known in Britain as the patron saint of children. His name is carried by many churches, a hospital and a major London train station. Like Christopher, Pancras was a Christian martyr of the period, executed for spreading Christianity. Pancras, however was martyred aged only 14 – which could possibly explain why he is widely considered the patron saint of children.
Christopher’s patronage, by contrast, is very broad; he is revered by a variety of people, including bookbinders, archers, bachelors, mariners, and surfers. Among his many patrons, Christopher is most commonly held as the patron saint of travellers and his image is most often worn by (or placed in the vehicles of) travelling Christians.
Legends surrounding St. Christopher
Many legends surround St. Christopher’s life. He was a Canaanite and a servant of the king of Canaan (a region in the Middle East comprising much of modern-day Israel, Lebanon, Syria and Jordan.) Some versions of the legend portray him the son of the King, who was conceived only after lengthy prayer to the Virgin Mary. In every version of the legend, he is possessed of immense strength and therefore of particular use to his master in tasks requiring great physical prowess. Accounts variously describe him as having a fearsome, ugly face and as being between seven and eighteen feet tall.
His route toward Christianity was similarly unusual. According to the story, Christopher one day determined that, since his talents were great they should be used in service of the greatest power he could find. He was therefore happy to serve the King of Canaan, who was indeed a very powerful man, until one day he saw his master cross himself on hearing the name of the Devil.
Christopher resolved therefore to serve the Devil, reasoning that anyone whom his master feared must surely be more powerful than his master. He searched long and hard for the Devil and eventually found him, working as one of a gang of bandits. It was not long, however, before Christopher noted that even the Devil was frightened by something: a roadside cross. Christopher then followed his earlier reasoning to the conclusion that Christ was more powerful than the Devil, and so resolved to serve Christ.
After receiving instruction in Christianity from a roadside hermit, Christopher became a devout evangelical. He travelled from place to place, spreading the Christian message. He abstained from traditional acts of devotion, such as fasting or praying, (one might guess that his considerable stature excluded him from them), but he found he could serve Christ using his physical strength.
The Story of the River
Christopher did this by ferrying travellers across a raging river, over which there was no other safe form of passage. It is here that the most widely-known legend begins. For a long while, Christopher spent his days carrying travellers across the river, until he was one day charged with carrying across a small boy – a task complicated by the fact that, when he reached the centre of the river, Christopher found that the apparently small child had become very heavy indeed.
Undeterred, Christopher delivered his charge to the opposite shore. It was then that the child revealed himself to be Christ and explained that his tremendous weight was due to the fact that he was carrying the weight of the entire world on his shoulders. Christopher, as one might expect, demanded proof and the child obliged by transforming Christopher’s staff into a fruit-bearing palm tree.
On hearing of this miracle, many of the locals rejoiced and converted immediately to Christianity. The local authorities, however, took a rather more dim view of the incident and ordered that Christopher be imprisoned, tortured and beheaded.
This tale explains the etymological roots of St. Christopher’s name, which stems from the Greek ‘Christophoros’, or ‘Christ bearer’. A similar legend exists for the Egyptian martyr St. Menas, leading many scholars to conclude that the two are one and the same. Both versions of the tale are derived from an ancient Greek legend in which Jason carries an old woman across the river Anauros, unaware that the old woman is in fact Hera, Queen of the Gods, in disguise.
Christopher in Catholicism
Prior to the 15th century, the Catholic Church had no formal process of canonisation with which to determine which individuals were worthy of the title ‘saint’. During this time, there existed no central authority charged with the task; it was simply a matter of popular consensus. To put it another way, individuals were awarded sainthood on the basis that they were referred to as saints, rather being referred to as saints because they had been awarded sainthood.
As a consequence, a lot of supposed ‘saints’ were not canonical figures, or even Christian figures at all; many were based on legends from other cultures and religions. There was even one account which held that the Buddha once travelled west to convert to Christianity and had thereby attained sainthood.
Half a millennium later, in 1969, the Vatican decided that their Universal Calendar was in need of reform. This process would establish which of these historical ‘saints’ were really worthy of the title and exclude those that remained from the calendar.
There were many casualties. Some saints were considered so legendary that their cults were repressed, such as that of St. Ursula. Christopher was determined to be undeserving of such a severe measure, but still sufficiently dubious to be culled from the universal calendar, but his name can still be found on some local calendars.
Modern Perspectives on St. Christopher
St. Christopher has come to be widely associated with safety and stewardship, which could explain why his name is so often invoked – prayers are usually to him made by those seeking assurance against possible hardship. This includes travellers in the literal sense, but also of those in a figurative sense: those embarking on a new career or lifestyle might appeal to him, as might those embarking on a new enterprise, or welcoming a new addition to a group of like-minded individuals, or a family. His name is therefore associated with important events such as funerals, weddings, and of course christenings.