From the book Tales Told in Holland–a rather odd photo indeed.
Every generous act of giving, with every perfect gift, is from above, coming down from the Father of lights, with whom there is no variation or shadow due to change. James 1:17
Read: 2 Corinthians 9:6-9
“Once again St. Nicholas Day
Has even come to our hideaway;
It won’t be quite as fun, I fear,
As the happy day we had last year.
Then we were hopeful, no reason to doubt
That optimism would win the bout,
And by the time this year came round,
We’d all be free, and safe and sound.
Still, let’s not forget it’s St. Nicholas Day,
Though we’ve nothing left to give away.
We’ll have to find something else to do:
So everyone please look in their shoe!”
Anne Frank, The Diary of a Young Girl
Today many Christians will commemorate the life and faithful witness of Nicholas, Bishop of Myra. We don’t know a whole lot about Nicholas, although many wonderful legends and stories exist. He lived and served during the fourth century in what is now Turkey, and he is believed to have died around 342 CE.
Stories told about Nicholas emphasize his love of God, his love for neighbor, and his particular compassion for the poor and marginalized. My favorite legend involves three young women whose father was about to sell them into slavery (think human trafficking) because there was no money for dowries. The good bishop reportedly placed a bag of gold in one of each girl’s stockings that were hung out to dry, thus enabling them to marry rather than face a life of shame and ignominy.
Legends about the life of St. Nicholas give us our legend of Santa Claus, although the modern North American Santa Claus is a creation of Clement Clark Moore, who in the early 1800s wrote the poem “A Visit from Saint Nicholas,” or what we now know as “The Night Before Christmas.” Moore’s creation of Santa Claus was an attempt to transform the rowdy, drunken holiday traditions into a more family-oriented, calm, and safe holiday. His good intentions, however, played right into the hands of those seeking to market Christmas, and so gift-giving morphed like atomic fallout into an overspent, overindulged, and harried experience.
Recapturing the story of St. Nicholas is one way to turn the Advent and Christmas focus back to giving in a good way–not giving to excess or beyond one’s means but rather giving to meet needs. Instead of giving out of guilt or duty, St. Nicholas’ witness encourages us to give out of pure love in response to the unmerited love and grace of Christ.
No, I’m really not trying to spoil Christmas for the tots or undo a complicated system of supply and demand that will unmantle the very underpinnings of capitalism and the economic system. I’m simply hoping to provide a way for us to reclaim the expectation, preparation, and joy of the Advent season. Wouldn’t it be wonderful if no family had to go into debt in order to “do Christmas” the right way? Wouldn’t it be lovely if folks could slide into the pews on Christmas Eve and sing “Silent Night” with a sense of wonder and delight rather than exhaustion and anxious hope about whether enough has been prepared and spent?
Christmas presents we purchase come and go or break and end up in some landfill. Gifts of heart and hand last much longer. But the gift of God incarnate for which we wait once again is the one true gift that matters, the one that will never be the wrong size or color and will never need returning.
Spend some time today recovering the legends and stories of this good Christian man, whose life witness gives us a model for generosity and care of the poor and marginalized. For more information, check out Bill McKibben’s delightful little book Hundred Dollar Holiday: The Case for a More Joyful Christmas, Adam English’s new book The Saint who Would be Santa Claus, and/or Stephen Nissenbaum”s The Battle for Christmas. You can also learn a lot by visiting the St. Nicholas Center website. Give thanks for Nicholas’ generous spirit and find one way to be secretly generous with someone today.
Consider making St. Nicholas ornaments or cookies. A pattern/tutorial for the ornament, designed by Mollie Johanson/Wild Olive, may be found here. Recipes for cookies may be found here or at the St. Nicholas Center website. Blessings on your day!