St. Nicholas—Sharing the Gift

by Tom Peterson, from ALTERNATIVES

Sinterklaas, Santa, and Father Time on skis
Dutch postcard: 2003
St Nicholas Center Collection

This session is from Preparing to Celebrate the Birth of Christ: a Four Session Activity Guide for Leaders of Youth Groups. This is Session 1; the others are Session 2: Isaiah—The Message of the Gift; Session 3: The Magi—Returning the Gifts; Session 4: Receiving the Gift.


Celebrating Christmas can be a confusing affair. Judging from the ways we celebrate, it is not always clear what or whose birthday we are celebrating. This Activity Guide provides the resources for a youth group to explore the meaning of Christmas, including the abuses and creative possibilities in its celebration.
Ideally, this four session study should begin the first Sunday in November as a part of preparation for Advent. If the sessions start much later, there will not be as much potential for influencing the way people celebrate this year. The young people will need December to put the results of their study into practice.
Before the unit starts, look over the following list and order or secure what will be needed.
Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas, see below.
Review "Christmas in History,"
To Celebrate: Reshaping Holidays and Rites of Passage.


To explore the secularization and commercialization of Christmas through the characters of Santa Claus and St. Nicholas To move toward a more meaningful celebration of the holiday


Chalkboard and chalk, or poster and marker
Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas video script & study guide
Digital projector


Spend some time the week before this session thinking about Santa and his connection with Christmas. Go to a shopping center or major department store and as objectively as possible—observe pre-Christmas. Jot down your thoughts. Watch a Santa Claus in a store, noting what he does, what his function is in the store or mall. Be prepared to share your findings with the class.
Read the narratives on Santa Claus and St. Nicholas (below). Christmas Without Santa and St. Nicholas: A Puppet Play are also helpful.
Preview Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas (below) if you have not yet done so.

Session Plan

1. Play Gossip

Arrange the group in a circle. Whisper the following sentence to the person on your left: "My grandmother's dog got loose and chased Mr. Green's cat up a tree. Mr. Green called the fire department, and the firefighter replied, 'Did you ever see a cat skeleton in a tree"' Each person does likewise until it has gone around the group. The last person to hear it says aloud what he/she has heard. Tell the group you will get back to the gossip later.

2. Santa Claus

(a) Ask the group to list all of the things they can about Santa Claus: what he does, what he looks like, where they've seen him, childhood beliefs, etc. Write key words from these suggestions on the left half of the chalkboard.
(b) Read the following narrative about Santa. After reading, allow a few more additions to the list.

Santa Today

He sits, elevated on his throne like chair, inspiring awe in children. He is surrounded by Styrofoam candy canes, plastic holly, glitter and young women helpers handing out candy.
The Merchants' Santa is retired or unemployed, but is picking up some seasonal work in the shopping mall. He makes five dollars an hour for smiling, ho ho ho-ing, and quizzing hundreds of kids, "What do you want Santa to bring you?"
Last year, the Santas' union #243 went on strike, picketing six major malls in the city for a week. They demanded better wages as well as an hour for lunch. It caused such an embarrassment and loss of business that the merchants conceded. The Santas went back to work.
This $20 billion Christmas season would not be complete without Santa. In between his jolly laughs, parents can hear (over the microphone) little Suzi or Roger parroting the TV commercials: "I want a Vazoom Rocket by Toyco and a Death Planet!"
But Santa doesn't really go into Roger or Suzi's houses. Nor does he really give away any gifts. All those toys have to be bought by mom or dad at the local shopping center. But many parents can't afford the toys advertised on TV. Their kids may remember Christmas like the inner city Detroit teenager who recalls, "When I was very, very young, Christmas meant getting up in the morning and wanting gifts that wouldn't be there."

3. St. Nicholas

Read the narrative "St. Nicholas." Ask the class to list characteristics of Nicholas and write the key words on the right side of the chalkboard.

St. Nicholas

We know St. Nicholas through ancient legends. About three hundred years after Christ, he was the bishop of Myra (in modern day Turkey). His parents didn't have a great deal of money, but always had enough to give to the poor. Nicholas is said to have been very devout as a child, a model child, you might say. As a youth, he joined a monastery and was quite religious. Once he learned of a kind but poor man who didn't have enough money for dowries for his teenage daughters. No one would marry them unless they had dowries. In order to keep them from starving, he was thinking about selling them into slavery.
When Nicholas heard of this, he threw a bag of gold into their house enough for the oldest daughter to marry (which she did immediately). He did this at night to keep from being seen. On the two following nights he tossed into the house a bag of gold for each of the two remaining daughters, and they were married like their elder sister. So each of the three were saved from a life of slavery.
Houses in those days did not have windows like ours do today. But there was a hole in the roof to let out smoke from cooking and heating. It was through this opening that Nicholas threw the gold. From this came the custom that Santa Claus comes down the chimney.
There are other stories. In one, St. Nicholas saved three kidnapped children from death, and in another he healed a sick child. Once, some ships loaded with Roman troops stopped over in Myra. The bored troops began to go into town and were unruly, arguing and fighting, and were bullying the local people. Nicholas went directly to the three generals and boldly accused them, "You have permitted your soldiers to loot our city." The generals stopped the rabble rousers immediately. Years later, these same generals were in the Roman prison with false charges against them. Nicholas went to the Emperor and got them cleared.
From these and other legends, Nicholas became the patron saint of children, sailors, merchants, prisoners, pawnbrokers, travelers, and young people who want to marry. Because of his gift giving, caring character, his popularity, and the fact that his saint's day is December 6th, St. Nicholas became a central Christmas figure. But he evolved as in a game of gossip to our modern day Santa Claus.

4. Discussion

(a) Read Luke 4:16 22.
(b) In this first recorded speech of his ministry, Jesus described his mission. What are some of the ways St. Nicholas also took up some of these causes?
(c) How do you think the story of St. Nicholas got twisted into Santa?
(d) Have you ever played gossip when someone intentionally changed the words? Who do you think is in control of who Santa is today? How would you change Santa Claus to fit more into the Christmas message as presented in Luke 4? What would Santa be like; what would he/she look like; what would Santa do? Be creative, make a list of suggestions on the board. (A member may want to draw this new Santa with help from the class.)

5. Play/script

Perform or read "Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas" and discuss ways that our Christmas celebration might better reflect the spirit of St. Nicholas.

6. Prayer

As a group, pray that the spirit of St. Nicholas be more a part of your Christmas celebrations.

1980s videos from Simple Living Works! 6:51 & 10:44 minutes

Author Tom Peterson is with Heifer Project International.

Used by permission of ALTERNATIVES for Simple Living.
"Equipping people of faith to challenge consumerism, live justly and celebrate responsibly"
Resources for responsible living since 1973

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