by the Rt Revd Alan Smith, Bishop of St. Albans
With only a few shopping days left to Christmas, don't feel inadequate if your Christmas budget has shrunk this year. Retailers may be worried that spending could drop from £11 billion to £9 billion, but remember that among the presents which best embody the Christmas spirit are inexpensive oranges and chocolate coins in children's Christmas stockings.
It was not until I had grown up that I realised their significance. Oranges and chocolate gold coins remind us about the generosity of St Nicholas, from whom we get the name Santa Claus—and ultimately the person of Father Christmas. It is also because of St Nicholas that we hang gold balls on our Christmas trees.
Nicholas was a fourth century Bishop of Myra in present day Turkey. He is remembered for his generosity and his love for children. One frequently repeated story is how he saved three girls from being sold into prostitution. Nicholas had heard that a distraught father could not afford dowries for his daughters. If they could not be married then they were likely to end up as prostitutes. Realising the danger they were in, Nicholas threw three bags of gold into their open window one night, so that they had the money for the dowries. It was an act of selfless goodness that protected the vulnerable girls and set them free from the prospect of enslavement. Oranges, bags of chocolate coins and gold balls all remind us of Nicholas' gift to the girls and symbolise the spirit of giving at Christmas—especially to children and to those in need.
In all the fun of Christmas it is easy to forget that there are millions of people in our world who are still held in slavery. Some experts estimate that half a million people in the world are enslaved and trafficked each year. Nor is this a problem restricted to remote parts of Africa or Asia. Research suggests that in one year 2,600 women and children were trafficked into the UK for domestic service or sexual exploitation. The Christian charity CHASTE (Churches Alert to Sex Trafficking across Europe) is campaigning to stop this trade in human beings and to provide help and support. Why not make a donation to help their work this Christmas?
But there are other sorts of slavery, such as being addicted to satisfying my or my children's every need. It's sad that in Britain the selfless St Nicholas has been high-jacked and has become the Father Christmas of a thousand adverts. We are left with little more that a materialistic Christmas, less about giving and more about self-pampering. Pester-power rules OK.
Instead can we not rediscover the real spirit of Christmas? Let's reboot the story of St Nicholas. Alongside the Christmas presents, keep putting oranges and gold coins in the stockings. We may be asked what they are doing there and we can tell them the old story—which generations of children used to know—of St Nicholas and his generosity.
And then, why not wrap the children up and bring them to church? It's what inspired St Nicholas in the first place. Happy Christmas!
+Alan St Albans December 2010
"Tell Children about the real Santa Claus, says Bishop of St Albans" from the Diocese of St. Albans. Image courtesy of the Diocese of St. Albans. Permission pending.