by Edward Hays
December 6: Feast of Saint Nicholas, Bishop of Myra in Asia Minor in the fourth century, patron of children, pawnbrokers and sailors. Nicholas, known for his generosity, is also the patron saint of Greece, Russia and Sicily. Today in many European countries this Dutch Sinter Klaus, or Santa Claus, gives gifts of fruit, candy and sweets. Pray today for the heart of a child so as to enjoy this magical and mystical season of Christmastide.
Postcard: the Netherlands, 1908
St Nicholas Center Collection
One of the patron saints of this Advent season is good old St. Nicholas whose feast is December 6. Legend tells that he was the holy bishop of a city in Asia Minor. He is the patron of children, sailors, young women who wish to be married and pawn brokers—an interesting collection of persons to have the same guardian. But we might also add one more to the list of clients for the patronage of this kindly and generous saint: holiday shoppers.
By every advertising means at hand, we are encouraged to buy gifts for our loved ones. Christmas is the time when we empty our bank accounts in an attempt to satisfy our desire to find the right gifts for all those we love. Clever minds create commercials telling us that the cost of the gift speaks of the depth of our love. Hassled, hurried and haggled, we crowd our way through stores attempting the impossible feat of balancing our affection with our bank accounts. And each year, as the cost of goods increases, we find it harder to give a gift that truly speaks of our love. Woe to those who struggle through purchaser's purgatory!
But then, in the midst of our depression, comes St. Nicholas with a solution that's nearly a miracle (for which he was well known on land and sea). And it is fitting that the feast of St. Nicholas comes at the beginning of Advent and the beginning of the shopper's season. As the patron saint of shoppers he proclaims, "Keep it simple!" Keep it simple enough to fit in a shoe (as you may recall, in Europe it is St. Nicholas who gives gifts to children, leaving presents in their shoes or stockings). True, a diamond ring or a gold watch could fit inside a shoe, but that's not quite the idea behind this St. Nicholas advice.
One gift that could fit in a wooden or leather shoe, or in a stocking hanging on the fireplace, is a note that speaks of one of our most precious gifts, the gift of time. Such a St. Nicholas note might read: "My gift to you, Mom, is an offer to dry the dishes every night for the next three months." Or, "The gift I give you, dear, is half an hour of quality conversation each night right after the dishes are done." We can appreciate the value of such a gift if we keep in mind that according to a recent sociological survey, the average married couple in America has only thirty minutes a week of communication outside of exchanges that take place at the family table. And that thirty minutes a week even includes arguments! As you can see, the possibilities are almost unlimited for these St. Nicholas shoe gifts. Such love gifts imply that what you hide in the shoes of your loved one is yourself.
Come, St. Nicholas, patron of shoppers and gift-seekers, and make Christmas this year fun, creative and love-filled!
Further thoughts on gift-giving—
In J.R.R. Tolkien's wonderful trilogy, The Lord of the Rings, we are introduced to a delightful group of little creatures called hobbits. These easyliving, gentle people who inhabited Middle Earth can teach us much about gift-giving at Christmas time.
Among the customs of the hobbits was to give new gifts only to new friends. Old friends were given old gifts such as family heirlooms. The older the friendship, the more ancient the gift. What happened naturally was a sort of perpetual gift exchange. Prized possessions, rare and beautiful things, simply flowed back and forth among them. This custom of giving away a gift that you yourself had once received might strike us as being impolite. But if the gift is a symbol of love, should not the love be shared-passed around?
This practice of the hobbits expresses a good theology about what we, as Christians, should be doing at Christmas time. Just because a gift is old, wellworn and perhaps out of style does not take away from its symbolic value: perhaps it adds to it! For the longer we have a valued possession, the more affection we will have had a chance to invest in it and the more of our loving energy it will have absorbed. Our friends the hobbits could remind us that all gifts are really symbolic. They are magic reminders that we ourselves are the real gifts that are exchanged with others. This central and sacred concept that gifts are intended to be signs is often forgotten in the blitzkrieg blizzard of business advertising. We become more concerned about the size, shape and price tag than with the meaning invested in the gift.
May the hobbit's simple but sincere gift-giving tradition temper our usual holiday excesses and free us to give gifts that are true expressions of the heart.
A St. Nicholas Note
Excerpt suitable for newsletters or service leaflets
By Edward Hays, from A Pilgrim's Almanac: Reflections for Each Day of the Year, Forest of Peace Publishing, 1989, copyright © Edward M. Hays, pages 190,191. Used by permission. Purchase from amazon.com, amazon.ca or amazon.uk.