Holy Old Saint Nicholas

saint nicholasWe celebrate Christmas — the birth of Christ — each December 25th. On a more secular note, it is also the day during which Santa travels around the world delivering presents to all the boys and girls. But the basis for Santa is anything but secular, and each December 6th is a wonderful opportunity to remind ourselves of Saint Nicholas, and the meaning of selflessness.

1,670 years ago, Santa Claus still walked amongst us. Prior to moving to the North Pole and becoming Santa Claus, Saint Nicholas was a Greek man of short stature (just about five feet tall) who became a bishop and was known for his holiness and his generosity. It is from the legends of Saint Nicholas that we derive the idea of Santa Claus.

saint nicholasOne legend tells of three sisters whose father could not afford to pay the dowry required for them to marry. Without a dowry, the sisters would remain unmarried and have few legitimate opportunities for employment and income. Upon learning about this family’s plight, Saint Nicholas decided to provide the family with three bags of gold, one for each girl’s dowry. He did so by throwing the three sacks into an open window in the family home in order to maintain his anonymity and to spare the family the indignity of accepting charity for something considered so important and fundamental. Other versions of the legend state that the sacks were dropped down the chimney. (And yet other versions of the legends are decidedly more macabre…I’ll leave it up to you to Google those.)

saint nicholasFor a kid, time seems to slow right after Thanksgiving, such that Christmas always seems so far away, almost like a moving target. As someone who attended Catholic grade school, I distinctly remember the delight we all experienced each year on December 6th when Saint Nicholas’s feast day fortuitously occurred on a school day. The tradition was that we would place our shoes outside of the classroom doors, lining the hallways. By the time recess was announced, Saint Nicholas had visited us, leaving presents in all of our shoes. Not only is this just what I needed to help tide me over until Christmas, but this tradition instilled in me a curiosity about the saints, and a love for Saint Nicholas.

This Advent, as we wait joyfully, anticipating the birth of our Lord, let’s say a short prayer to Saint Nicholas and ask that he guide our hearts so that we may give not only generously where we can, but selflessly, and for the greater glory of God. And in the words of Pope Gregory XVI in his prayer of petition to Saint Nicholas, let us never forget to “comfort the sorrowing, provide for the needy, strengthen the weak-hearted, defend the oppressed, and help the sick.”

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