On December 6, we celebrate the feast day of St Nicholas.
I have fond memories of celebrating “Sint Nicolaas” or “Sinterklaas” as a young child with other Dutch families in New Westminster. We’d all be together in a large hall, with our hearts in our throats, waiting for Sinterklaas to arrive with his mischievous helper Black Peter (“Zwarte Piet”). We could barely contain our excitement, wondering if Sinterklaas would reward us for being good, or if Black Peter would take us away for being naughty.
Many countries in northern and eastern Europe celebrate the good saint by giving gifts and engaging in other festive activities.
We don’t know very much about St Nicholas. He was born in 280 CE, in modern–day Turkey. We know he was a priest and later became a bishop. He seems to have been quite well off, and that he travelled around the country helping people anonymously with gifts of money or by providing other necessities.
One of the famous stories about St Nicholas is how he helped a poor man who had no money to give to his three daughters on their wedding day. He dropped bags of gold into the stockings which the girls had left to dry by the fire. Although this story is most likely to be a legend, it does capture the spirit of generosity and wisdom of this ancient bishop.
The early church remembered him as a generous giver of gifts to the poor, and the protector of young children. St Nicholas was eventually named the patron saint of children and sailors, as well as Russia and Greece.
As a result of his growing reputation for kindliness, generosity and wisdom, Christians began to venerate him. By 450, churches in Asia Minor and Greece were being named in his honour. By 800, he was officially recognized as a saint by the Eastern Catholic Church.
Over time, St Nicholas was transformed into the modern–day Santa Claus — although St Nicholas probably wouldn’t recognize himself in this fat, jolly man with a white beard. The modern Santa has been thoroughly commercialized. Old Testament scholar Peter Enns writes, “St Nicholas probably had better things on his mind than making sure nice children get an X–Box or an iPad.”
In a very funny monologue on Saturday Night Live, Chris Rock notices that “there are no sacred days anymore. We commercialize everything. Look what we did to Christmas! This is Jesus’ birthday! Now, I don’t know Jesus, but from what I’ve read, Jesus is the least materialistic person to ever roam the earth. No Bling on Jesus! He kept a low profile, and we turned his birthday into the most materialistic day of the year. As a matter of fact, we’ve turned it into a whole season of materialism.”
Indeed! We are being swamped by consumerism. We spend money we don’t have on stuff we don’t need. We have lost our way.
Perhaps in this season of anticipation, we could profit by reclaiming the spirit of St Nicholas. He shows us again that we discover God’s grace in our lives by giving freely and generously to people who are in need. We don’t discover joy in the pile of presents stacked under the Christmas tree; we find deep joy in giving ourselves to others.
Our world needs people who are ready to give of themselves in this way. May the spirit of Nicholas, bishop of Myra, fill your celebrations this season and throughout the year.