Getting to know good St. Nicholas

by Tom Schaefer
St Nicholas with staff
Artist: Ken Widing
Spring Lake, Michigan
Rosenthal Collection

Eight tiny reindeer, toy-making elves and, of course, the jolly one himself. Before we're inundated with the cute and commercial side of Christmas, let's take a few minutes to get a little holiday perspective.

If your celebration of Christmas is no more than mailing cards to friends and family or forced listening to Christmas carols in stores, at least examine why Santa has a place in holiday festivities.

Father Bob Layne at St. Matthew's Episcopal Church in Newton will surely take me to task for suggesting Santa has anything to do with the celebration of Jesus' birth.

The good-natured priest is noted for his anti-Santa attitude, calling the red-suited elf a symbol of greed and waste. But I know he agrees with me that buried beneath the white beard and overstuffed apparel lies the little-known story of a saint who embodied what true giving is all about.

So, before you read Clement Moore's sugarplum version of Santa Claus, learn about the real St. Nicholas, whose feast day will be celebrated on Monday.

Nicholas was born in the village of Patara in present-day Turkey sometime between the years 260 and 280. Though he was quite young when his parents died, they already had instilled in him a deep faith in Christ.

Taking his substantial inheritance, Nicholas decided to follow the admonition of Jesus, who had told a wealthy man in the Gospel of St. Mark to "sell what you have and give to the poor."

That's just what Nicholas did, dedicating his life to helping the poor and suffering.

In the year 300, he became bishop of Myra, and his reputation of caring for children, the needy and sailors became widely known.

During the persecution of Christians by the Roman emperor Diocletian, Nicholas was arrested and sent into exile. After his release, he continued to serve others until his death on Dec. 6, 343.

In the centuries that followed, stories were told about the kindly bishop. According to one, a man had three daughters and no dowry for them. Without it, they most likely would have been sold into slavery.

On three different nights, Nicholas tossed bags of gold through the father's open window that landed in the stockings or shoes left by the fire to dry. (The idea of hanging stockings by the fireplace to receive gifts grew from this story.)

It's only one example of his deference to the poor and love of others.

As newcomers arrived in America, they passed along the stories of Nicholas, embellished by the traditions of their various cultures.

The image of Nicholas as a jolly elf was bolstered in 1823 by Moore's poem "A Visit From St. Nicholas," also known as "The Night Before Christmas."

Nearly two millennia since Nicholas' birth, what are we to make of him? Does a third-century saint, morphed into a shopping mall icon, have any relevance for us today, beyond inspiring us to consume?

For almost 20 years, my brother-in-law, Tom Brooks, a retired Lutheran pastor, would tell the story of St. Nicholas to his congregations.

He would put on a red chasuble, miter and beard and invite the children to the front of the church on the Sunday closest to St. Nicholas Day. He'd briefly tell them about the saint whom the kids knew only as Santa Claus.

St Nicholas with children
Artist: Pauli Ebner
Detail, vintage Austrian postcard
St Nicholas Center Collection

It was his way of taking on the commercial superpower and getting young and old alike to think, if only for a short time, about the true spirit of the man in red.

Now, those of us who take spiritual lessons seriously need to take it a step further.

In The Saints' Guide to Happiness, Robert Ellsberg says that no passage of Scripture had greater significance for those who became saints than the Gospel reference to sell all and give to the poor, the passage that changed Nicholas' life.

These men and women of God found it to be the secret to true happiness, to a new life, Ellsberg said, a life richer than anything they'd known before.

Though few of us will take such a radical step, the story of Nicholas can be a starting point to rearrange our priorities and approach the holiday season with deeper joy.

Learn more about Nicholas online at Read to your children one of several good books about him: Saint Nicholas: The Story of the Real Santa Claus by Mary Joslin, or The Secret of Saint Nicholas by Mary Anne Kamols.

Then teach—and reinforce by your actions—that crucial distinction that many of us have forgotten or ignored:

Santa Claus is mostly about a single time of getting. Nicholas is all about a lifetime of giving.

By Tom Schaefer, Copyright © 2005 The Wichita Eagle, Wichita, Kansas, Saturday December 4, 2005. Used by permission.

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