The feast of St. Nicholas is upon us. Tonight lots of little shoes will be set out in hopes that he will stop by. Our stockings are certainly hung with care.
I so enjoy the fun of this feast day because I enjoy our brother.
Though not much can be said for the St. Nicholas from 21st century historicity standards, thousands upon thousands of faithful folks have carried stories about him through the centuries. These widely-held legends have common threads running throughout, themes of generosity, liberation, compassion, and faith.
The story goes that two faithful parents bore St. Nicholas into the world sometime in the late third century in what is now Turkey, only to be taken from him through a tragic epidemic fairly early in childhood. Instead of keeping his sizable inheritance, the growing Nicholas used all of his resources in service of those experiencing poverty and illness in his area. Word got around, evidently, for soon, when he was still a young man, Nicholas was made bishop of Myra.
From this point the legends really take off. Nick used his powerful position as leverage against peoples’ pain. He fed and clothed folk, funded apprenticeships, healed wounded bodies, and even, some say, brought a few murder victims back to life.
My favorite story is about three young sisters facing devastating futures of enslaved prostitution. Per the backward and violent patriarchal ways of the time, the women were to be turned out onto the street because their father did not have resources for adequate dowries.
Nicholas overheard their situation and moved immediately to intercept disaster.
Late at night he disguised himself and hid three purses of the church’s gold coins under his cloak. Some say he tossed the bags down the chimney, others a window, but, at any rate, Nicholas gave the young women what they needed to survive.
Of course, I wish St. Nicholas could have turned over the entire system that perpetuated the women’s position in the first place—but what mere mortal can do that all on her or his own?
Even Jesus was only able to initiate our redemption; Advent helps us remember that we are still waiting, watching, and working with Christ for the fulfillment of it (see this past Sunday’s gospel discussion here).
I admire the brother I encounter in the story of the three young women because he partnered with Jesus in the ongoing and constantly necessary work of liberation in the world.
I keep calling Nick our brother and that is on purpose.
Though seemingly separated by centuries of time and space, St. Nicholas is someone with whom I feel a genuine kinship. He is just there in the great cloud of witnesses continuing to seed good in God’s creation through his memory and probably through his prayers. Plus, the themes of his legends model for me what can be possible when ordinary people choose to follow Jesus.
This ordinary St. Nicholas is our brother because he was and is a person beloved of God and charged by God to bless his community, not a figment of good advertising.
“Santa Claus,” on the other hand, is not someone with whom I can connect.
Perhaps that is why he is so popular in the markets where it behooves capitalist business goals to keep citizens disconnected and desperate for more stuff.
Instead of a mid-eastern brother who overcame personal adversity to join Christ’s work of healing and heartening the world, the popular Santa of the last century is a magic white man whose biggest problem is making sure the “good kids” get exactly what they want—“good kids” usually meaning the rich ones, as it turns out. This guy. He feeds consumerism and want instead of actually feeding people. He is not our brother.
Nicholas of Myra, however, is someone I can get behind. I cannot wait to share his stories with our little girl one day—hopefully over hot chocolate and a collaborative scheme to make someone’s day.
Remembering St. Nick:
Here are some fun ideas to help us remember our brother and follow his example of loving Christ and others.
Have a St. Nicholas Eve Feast
Liturgically speaking “eves” are important because each day begins, actually, the night before. What a marvel to remember as we greet the nighttime that each new day begins not with the work of morning, but with rest in the arms of God while creation continues into newness without our help. Mercies are new each morning, indeed.
One way we can remember our brother Nicholas is to welcome his special day around the table with friends. Some countries have Nick-specific meals set aside for this eve. France serves pork and apples and Germany celebrates with pancakes!
Whatever meal you choose, light the Advent candle together and deeply, deeply enjoy. See the light of God in one another. That’s what Nick would do.
Set out your stockings—or shoes!—on St. Nick’s Eve
Perhaps a more familiar tradition is the setting of the shoes. This comes from the story of the three young women. They say that when Nicholas threw the coins into their home, they landed in the women’s stockings hung up to dry by the fire! Or shoes. Some people say they fell into their shoes.
Last year when I was finishing divinity school, Nicholas sneaked into my roommates’ and my apartment and left three gifts in each of our shoes:
A few dollar coins to remember Nick’s work of generosity and liberation (and to feed our coffee habits).
A new pair of festive socks to remember those who participated in and received his support.
And chocolate candies, for these memories are sweet and something to chew on!
Another great idea, especially for children, is to fill their stockings with items that will help them prepare for Christmas, such as books, holiday pajamas, or craft supplies for making Christmas presents.
Wondering what to do with stockings after St. Nicholas’ feast day? We have used our as Advent mailboxes. We sneak around and leave each other love notes and small treats (on Sundays) from Dec. 6th through Christmas.
St. Nicholas Speculaas Cookies
Another tradition that sounds delicious—and easy to package up and share with others! Here’s a recipe from the NYT. Those traditional molds look awesome, but I bet any fun shape would do.