It’s the time of year when kids are writing their letters to Santa Claus and deciding what kind of cookies they are going to leave for him by the fireplace on Christmas Eve. It’s the time of year to see that never-ending line in the mall waiting to sit on his lap. Santa Claus is everywhere this time of year, and on every kid’s (and therefore, every parent’s) mind. But who is Santa Claus? Where did he come from?
Today is the feast of St. Nicholas, who was a bishop of the Church back in the early 4th century. The cultural icon of Santa Claus grew from this real-life leader of the Church. So who was St. Nicholas? He was born in the 3rd century in an area of modern-day Turkey to wealthy parents who were devout Christians. They died while Nicholas was still young. Nicholas, who inherited his parents’ wealth, was troubled by Jesus’ command to the rich young ruler to sell everything he had and give the money to the poor. As Nicholas wrestled with this command, he came to the conclusion that he needed to listen to it. He used his whole inheritance to care for the sick, the needy, and the suffering. He was made a bishop of the Church at a young age, and he became known for his compassion and generosity towards those in need, for his care for children, and for sailors who were in frequent danger traveling the seas.
One of the more famous stories that arose around St. Nicholas demonstrates his care for those in need. This story tells of a poor man with three daughters. In those days a young woman’s father had to offer prospective husbands something of value—a dowry. The larger the dowry, the better the chance that a young woman would find a good husband. Without a dowry, a woman was unlikely to marry. This poor man’s daughters, without dowries, were therefore destined to be sold into slavery or prostitution. Mysteriously, on three different occasions, a bag of gold appeared in their home-providing the needed dowries. The bags of gold, tossed through an open window, are said to have landed in stockings or shoes left before the fire to dry. This led to the custom of children hanging stockings or putting out shoes, eagerly awaiting gifts from Saint Nicholas. Sometimes the story is told with gold balls instead of bags of gold. That is why three gold balls, sometimes represented as oranges, are one of the symbols for St. Nicholas. And so St. Nicholas is a gift-giver.
Whether or not this story is true, it demonstrates how St. Nicholas was viewed in his day: as one who is the friend and protector of all who were in need. While our culture views Santa Claus as the great bringer of gifts and toys and Christmas cheer, what if we went back to the real deal this Advent and Christmas season?
What if, instead of looking to Santa Claus to fulfill our wish lists, we instead tried to be a present-day embodiment of St. Nicholas as a friend and protector of someone in need?
St. Nicholas is an example of the love and generosity of God, which is the central message of Christmas. Christmas is about the gift of Christ, coming down, being born as a human being, to live and die as one of us, to offer himself up for us. Jesus Christ is our friend and protector, and he calls us to be witnesses to that truth through our words and actions. Let’s hear and respond to that call today.
Happy St. Nicholas day!