Weaving together the wonder of Christmas involves one part honoring the birth of our Savior and one part honoring the life of a saint. Nicholas, to be exact. Yes, we know we’re celebrating Jesus’ birthday, but the fact is we get all the presents.
It would be easy to blame our culture and their cashing in, literally, on the character of Santa Claus, but let’s not be so hasty.
“As we wait for God to become incarnate, we look to the whole body of Christ, past and present, for models of embodied faith.” Beth Bevis, in “God with Us-Rediscovering the Meaning of Christmas.”
One example of that ‘embodied faith’ was Saint Nicholas, the bishop of Myra in the province of Lycia during the fourth century. The church calendar recognizes his generous life with the feast day of St. Nicholas on December 6. And no wonder; he was a generous man as well as a champion of the poor, employing people to make clothing for the needy and distributing food to the hungry. “According to tradition, Nicholas’ parents died when he was young, leaving him a large sum of money. With his inheritance, Nicholas practiced charity, helping those in need.” ibid.
One of the best-known legends about Nicholas provides a toehold on the origin of Christmas stockings. Sorry about the pun.
Nicholas had a friend, a wealthy shipping merchant, who lost all of his ships and their cargo during a violent storm. The man was devastated because he had three daughters of marrying age and with this loss went any chance of contributing wealth to their dowries. Nicholas wanted to help. He had the resources, but he knew his friend would hesitate to take charity. Nicholas came up with a plan; after dark one night, he dropped a bag of gold coins through the open window of the eldest daughter’s room. Some of the coins fell into a stocking that had been hung out to dry. His generous act became the tradition we have hundreds of years later of hanging those stockings “by the chimney with care.”
If your family celebrates the birth of Jesus as the central focus of Christmas, bringing Santa into the mix can be sticky business. Some families deal with that mix in a stellar way. One family I know observes the church feast day of St. Nicholas as the day they open their family stockings. You may consider doing this, using it not only as an opportunity to tell your children about the real St. Nick but also to spread out the bounty of Christmas morning to more than a single day.
Children are smarter than we give them credit for, but they are also very invested in make-believe; their pretend worlds are part of their reality until age seven or eight. Parents and grandparents know best and will be able to figure out the balance of truth-telling and make-believe that works for their family.
Let’s remember: there is clearly nothing “spiritual” or not in a family’s decision to celebrate Christmas with Santa Claus in the midst. In fact, our celebrations can be enriched when we consider embracing the spirit of giving that St. Nicholas’ life embodied.
Share this story with family and weave in the wonder of the season with Santa–based on the life of a real person who showed us what sacrifice and Christlike giving looked like.
Now tell me, what could be closer to the heart of Christmas than that?
If you’re looking for a poetic accompaniment to Christmas, may I suggest this small ten poem offering of mine, “Emmanuel Poems-Verses for the Holidays”? The Kindle is only $2.99 and available on Amazon.
A dip into poems celebrating the season of Advent through Epiphany, interwoven with my window pane watercolors. Just right for right now.
From the Archives. A portion of this post is included my book “Living the Season Well-Reclaiming Christmas,”