Today is one of my favorite Feast Days for one of my favorite saints: Saint Nicholas, Bishop, Patron Saint of Sailors, and Gift-giver.
It is ironic that little is known about the life of Saint Nicholas, this Bishop of a seaport town in what is now Turkey, because he’s one of the most beloved and recognizable saints in popular culture. We know that he was born in the 4th Century, and that he attended the Council of Nicaea where he is purported to have socked Arius (considered a heretic at the time) right in the face. Anyone who has served on a church council understands that it can get a bit testy sometimes…
But other than the above (and the whole “punched Arius” thing may not even be accurate), all else that is said about St. Nicholas is lore and legend.
It is said of him that, as an infant, he refused to nurse on Wednesdays and Fridays, typically fasting days for the pious.
It is said that he aided a poor family once by paying the dowry of three daughters, saving them from a life of prostitution. On three successive nights he threw bags of coins through an open window. This act is how he became known as the patron saint of gift-giving.
It is said that he saved three boys who had been kidnapped by a butcher and returned them to their parents.
It is said that he aided sailors in trouble off the coast of Myra by calming a storm, and showed great courage himself while out on the sea. This is why he is the patron saint of seafarers.
Today around the world Saint Nicholas will be impersonated by many utilizing a long, white beard, parading around in Bishop vestments. In some places small children dress up like the saint to beg for alms for the poor.
In America the rituals of St. Nicholas Day have almost all been moved to December 25th and melded with other Christian-Solstice practices. Still, in some homes (like mine), children leave their shoes out by the fireplace or in the foyer of the home, hoping that St. Nicholas will come by on his horse and leave chocolate coins, oranges, and small trinkets as gifts. The coins are an homage to the legend of the dowries.
The festivities and legends surrounding Saint Nicholas have melded with Norse and Celtic winter legends and lore in these days. Looking more like Odin now than a short, brown-skinned Bishop (which he most certainly was), common depictions of Santa Claus bear little resemblance to this ancient priest from Asia Minor. Still, the practice of gift-giving and charity is certainly worth continuing in whatever form it takes, and in that way St. Nicholas is kept alive age after age in one form or another.
Saint Nicholas is a reminder for me, and should be for the whole church, that charity and love are languages that are universal and, in the form of Saint Nick, take on hands, feet, and a face every year. There is much to be learned about human nature and human connection from the fact that his appeal is so wide and varied!
It almost makes one hopeful, yes?
-historical notes gleaned from Pfatteicher’s New Book of Festivals & Commemorations and too many Rick Steves documentaries on Christmas