The Story of St. Nick: a Real Servant to the Needy or a Prankish, Magical Elf?

Today is December 6th, the Feast of St. Nicholas.

On this day, the Church traditionally honors a real man who deeply loved Jesus. He was the Bishop of Myra (located in modern-day Turkey) and was known for his acts of kindness and gifts to the poor.

Nicholas came from a wealthy family, but secretly gave away his inheritance.

The famous story, from which sprang the legend of a gift-giving "Santa", recounts a distraught father who bemoaned how he was unable to provide a dowry for his three daughters. Years ago, a woman was considered ineligible for marriage unless she was able to bring something of value into the contract.

Those who lived in Europe and Asia during the time of Nicholas faced famines, plagues and wars, which put a premium on the survival of family lines that needed to be secured by dowries into richer, noble families.

During his evening walk, Nicholas heard the poor man's prayers from the open window of his small cottage. Family members hung their washed stockings to dry overnight on the mantle of the fireplace. Nicholas quietly returned later that night. As embers from the dying fire softly illumined the room, he tossed three gold coins through the window into the stockings.

Over the years, various cultures have taken this story and made their own adaptations, resulting in distortions of the real Nicholas. From the more accurate "Father Christmas" to the commercialized "Santa Claus"--derived from the Dutch Sinterklaas--St. Nicholas has been transformed from the Christian symbol of a benevolent, church bishop into a magical entity who is conditional in his giving:

He is omniscient (all knowing about the behavior of boys and girls)

He has supernatural powers over created elements (reindeer, gravity, time)

He has non-human servants (elves)

He is real beginning or end

Honestly, this seems to be referring more to a deity rather than a very simple, very real servant of God.

I've never been one to spoil the imagination and play of children, but I also don't lie to them about spiritual things in the name of "fun". Emphasizing the true story of the man St. Nicholas and his good works, while downplaying the god-like morph of Santa, seems a healthier choice for Christians who desire to influence their children toward a life-long imitation of Nicholas' servanthood and joy of anonymous giving.

Keeping St. Nick's Day enables Christian children to still enjoy the festivities associated with the Santa "legend" in a diverse culture. They can fully participate in the playmaking while aware of the richer, truer source of the gift-giving tradition.

On St. Nicholas Eve (December 5th), families would prepare baskets of food and other items for the needy. They would wait until dark to visit and place the gift on the doorsteps. The fastest child would then linger behind to knock on the door, running away before someone answered.

After returning home, the children would hang stockings along the fireplace mantle or place a pair of shoes by the hearth. The next morning, they would find them filled with fruits, chocolate, candy, home-made cookies and small gifts!

The festivities continued on St. Nicholas Day (December 6th). Families often held parties, where the children took turns tossing coin-wrapped chocolates in stockings (and won prizes for the best aims) and decorated Father Christmas ornaments.

Our former parish included a yearly visit from "St. Nicolas" on the Sunday prior to his feast day. He would gather the children around and tell them why he loved to bless others, and how excited he was to celebrate the greatest gift of all--Jesus! (John 3:16 IS the Christmas story!)

All the kids knew it was Mr. Ron behind the bishop's garb and woolly beard, but it never dulled their anticipation to once again hear the bells and hearty "Ho!"  of St. Nick, who always brought a good story and  goody-filled stockings!

The St. Nicholas Center is a wonderful site full of recipes, coloring pages, crafts, pictures and stories. I even use some of their pages as hand-outs in the baskets I prepare. It is a Roman Catholic site, so some of the resources will not be applicable for Protestants. However, please keep in mind that St. Nicholas lived from 270-346 A.D.--just a few hundred years after Christ's Ascension.

There was no "Roman" Church at the time nor Protestant denominations--just one church worldwide. Nicholas was imprisoned and tortured for his faith under Diocletian. He also attended the historical Council of Nicea in 325, the first worldwide council of Christian bishops called to settle the controversy regarding the divine nature of Jesus Christ.

Nicholas is reported to have argued aggressively against  Arius, who claimed Jesus was not equal to God, the Father. Tradition claims that at one point, Nicholas arose and slapped his opponent--an act which landed him in jail for a season under Constantine.

Regardless of the other stories associated with Nicholas through the years, exaggerated or not, along with our difficulty in separating fact from fiction (because people DO love to tell stories), what we do know is that a young man who had no aspirations to the ministry found himself thrust into extraordinary circumstances throughout his life.

Before he was ordained, Nicholas was faithful in the little things: his wealthy parents had died, and instead of squandering the inheritance on his own pleasures, Nicholas gave the bulk of it away to the needy.

Because of his background, I have no problem believing one story that tells of how Nicholas was chosen to be a bishop:

After the death of an area bishop, the local priests gathered for a time of prayer and fasting regarding God's selection of a new leader from among them. However, one of the older priests said that God had spoken to him in a vision and proclaimed, "The first person to enter the church tomorrow for morning prayer  is your bishop."

Everyone revered the Elder, and knew his words to be seasoned and accurate. So they waited. Nicholas was that person! What makes this story so amazing is that he was not even a priest, but against all protocol, the men ordained the reluctant young man to the highest office in that area. This account reminds me of the Old Testament story of Joseph--a young man, faithful to God, who was suddenly promoted out of persecution and obscurity to the highest office in the land of Egypt!

You can repeat many of these stories to your children, emphasizing Nicholas' courage under persecution, his bold defense of the faith before emperors and detractors, and his deep compassion for the hurting and needy...all the while with no desire for personal recognition or reward.

You may want to start collecting "Father Christmas" ornaments and dolls. I started this delightful tradition twenty-years ago. Displaying one on your desk at work during the holiday season makes for a great conversation piece, and paves the way for you to light-heartedly explain the real history of St. Nick and contrast it with his modern counterpart.

Now that I'm retired, my decorating tradition centers around where I place my Father Christmases--on the mantle, tabletops, and around the tree. You can find these collectibles in all sizes--from simple to the regal. However, an authentic Father Christmas will always be adorned in a long cloak with a hood, or bear a mitre or some adaptation around the head (such as a wreath), and will often have a staff (crosier).

May the story of St. Nicholas and the true spirit of giving in the name of Christ be prominent in your holiday celebrations!

Here's a prayer for this day from a church in Holland:

Almighty God, whom truly to know is everlasting life: grant us to perfectly know thy Son Jesus Christ as the way, the truth and the life, and that, following in the footsteps of friends like Nicholas who loved the poor, the weak and the young, and who gave what he had to enrich those who had but little, we may faithfully walk in the way that leads to eternal life; through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.

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