A useful online resource for brief biographies of saints and their celebrations, James Kiefer’s page (which I found at www.satucket.com/lectionary/Nicholas) is unusually perky today. It is entitled,
NICHOLAS OF MYRA: FRIEND OF CHILDREN, GIVER OF GIFTS, CLIMBER OF CHIMNEYS, ETC. (6 DEC 326)
Kiefer repeats the old legend wherein the generous bishop anonymously donates three bags of gold to furnish dowries for the three daughters of an impoverished father, allowing for their secure futures. In the middle-eastern story, he threw them through the window; in the later, European versions that I heard growing up, the girls’ stockings were hung to dry over the fireplace, or their shoes set in front, and they were found filled the next morning, as though someone had come down the chimney in the night (hence the customs both of hanging stockings and of filling them with chocolate coins wrapped in gold foil). Saint Nicholas, or Santa Claus, therefore came to be held responsible for unexpected and anonymous gifts, and a tradition of giving gifts on his feast day (or the night before) grew up.
Somewhere along the line, between the St Nicholas gifts in early December, and the gifts of the magi at the manger in early January, the traditions conflated into the gift-giving tradition of the Feast of the Nativity, and morphed into the Santa phenomenon of Christmas, at least where I live (although some communities have preserved the older traditions more faithfully).
Kiefer suggests the St Nicholas story as a way of inviting children into the fun of secret generosity without creating a deceptive myth, allowing them to give gifts of their own in Santa’s name, and to understand that a gift they receive from Santa is simply a secret gesture of generosity from someone who loves them.
Today’s readings focus the mind on three aspects of the St Nicholas story:
- kindness to those who need it, especially through their poverty (Proverbs);
- love (1 John);
- and the embrace of the young, the children (Mark).
There may be no chimneys involved, but to my mind, St Nicholas’ story is a sweet reminder of the Christian spirit of Christmas: the gift of a new way of life from an unseen and unknown Giver who has seen our need and loves us by fulfilling it. It’s no secret that that’s a story worth sharing.