Jesus told him, “If you want to be perfect, go and sell all your possessions and give the money to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven. Then come, follow me.” [Matthew 19:21 (NLT)]
Although it is difficult to know fact from fiction, we do know that St. Nicholas was born around 270 AD in Patara, a city in Lycia, in Asia Minor. The son of wealthy and devout parents, it was his uncle, the Bishop of Patara, who took charge of his spiritual life. Nicholas became the Bishop of Myra, quite likely attended the council of Nicaea, spent seven years imprisoned under Diocletian Persecution, and died on December 6, around 343 AD. While we don’t know much about the man, he must have had a great impact on the early Christian church because, by 450 AD, churches in Asia Minor and Greece were being named in his honor and, by the mid-6th century, the Emperor Justinian dedicated a church to him in Constantinople.
When Nicholas’ parents died, legend has it that he began to distribute the money and property he had inherited to those who begged him for help. Taking seriously Jesus’s command to sell his possessions and give to the poor, he selflessly gave away his entire wealth. It’s said that wherever he saw suffering or need, he gave in secret and expected nothing in return. The best known story of this revered saint is that he secretly provided money for the dowries of three girls whose father was so poor that he was going to sell them into slavery. Nicholas secretly provided each girl with a bag of gold (some say by putting it in their stockings that were drying by the fire). This legend evolved through the centuries into the custom of gift giving on the eve of his saint’s day.
Today is St. Nicholas Day. Last night, in his memory, children throughout Europe put out shoes, boots, or stocking to be filled with small gifts, fruit, nuts, candies and cookies brought by the Saint. These little gifts are meant to be shared with others and not hoarded for oneself. Perhaps we should pare down our Christmas lists so that our gifts can fit into a shoe or stocking. Let us also remember that those gifts are to be shared.
From what we know of the beloved saint, he loved God more than anything. I wonder what he would think of the way his name, faith and generosity have turned into such crass commercialism. While he is the patron saint of children, seamen, brides, the hungry, and scholars he is not the patron saint of credit card companies, malls, shoppers, catalogues or Amazon! Nicholas certainly wouldn’t approve of the way Santa Claus has eclipsed the Christ child in the hearts of many.
As we move into this holiday season, perhaps we should emulate St. Nicholas, the original Santa Claus. His life wasn’t about how many presents were stacked under a tree; it was about dedicating his life to serving God and helping those in need. It is Jesus, not Santa, who is the reason for the season!