Christmas is not your birthday!

by E. Angela Emerson

St. Peter’s outdoor coat rack
Photo: St. Peter’s Episcopal Church, Bennington, Vermont

December 6 is the Feast of St. Nicholas of Myra. This feast day is celebrated the world over by gift giving, primarily to children. The actual date of celebration and giving of gifts varies from country to country, but the genesis of the feast day is based on Bishop Nicholas’ practice of giving to help others especially children in need. Through the years this practice of gift giving to children became associated with many different names, Kris Kringle, Jolly Old St. Nick, and of course, Santa Claus. But only Bishop Nicholas practiced giving in the spirit of the teaching and ministry of Jesus.

In this country, the generosity and compassion of St. Nicholas and his gift giving has been conflated with the Christian celebration of Christmas. The commercialization of Christmas with its emphasis on quantity and even luxury gift giving distorts the significance and richness of both The Feast Day of Nicholas and Christmas. The spirit of Christmas and the Feast of St. Nicholas is sharing what we have with those who are need. The kind of giving taught by Jesus and practiced by Bishop Nicholas was a spirit of sharing, of generosity, of offering a helping hand.

There is a delightful book called Christmas is Not YOUR Birthday, by the Rev. Mike Slaughter. The book has shaped my own thinking around gift giving at Christmas. Each year I spend an amount helping people in need equal to what I spend on gifts for family and friends. I make liberal use of Heifer International and their life sustaining work around the world. (And Episcopal Relief and Development Nets for Life has been one of the most effective malaria reducing initiatives in history.) This year I added Empty Bowls to my list. I always share a card with a family member in whose name I give the gift. It is a practice that keeps me grounded in the true spirit of Christmas and the Christian tradition.

It wasn’t easy to change my practices from buying gifts because that is what we do on Christmas. But remembering that Christmas is not my birthday, nor the birthday of friends and family, has helped me remain focused on what Christmas is really about. It is a time when we commemorate the birth of Jesus of Nazareth the Son of God and celebrate the ongoing revelation and work of God in the world. We all participate in that ongoing work of the Divine when we share from our abundance.

St. Peters Episcopal Church has a clothes rack outside its front door where people can drop off shoes, socks, boots, hats, coats, all kind of winter gear. The clothes are taken and distributed faster than we can collect them. But the distribution of clothing to those who need the clothing is the reason for season. I have witnessed joy and celebration by those who have found something to help out in the cold weather. So, as you plan your holiday giving please consider giving as much to help those in need as you spend on friends and family. It is the spirit of generosity, of sharing, of helping that we find the true meaning of Christmas – and the Feast of St. Nicholas.


By the Rev. E. Angela Emerson, Interim Rector, St. Peters Episcopal Church, Bennington, Vermont; from Bennington Banner, December 4, 2020. Used by permission.

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