I made a friend really mad about 20 years ago, because when my son asked me about Santa Claus, I explained about St. Nicholas, Bishop of of Myra. And then, in Sunday School the next weekend, he told her son that, “Santa Claus is dead, and in heaven. And he’s a saint, like Saint Thomas.”
I don’t think my friend ever really got over it, but I’m still glad that I told my son the truth about where we get this over-commercialized, sometimes creepy “Santa Claus” image in popular culture today. St. Nicholas is much more interesting than the fat guy who drinks Coca-Cola.
Where St. Nicholas is prominent, his feast day, December 6, not Christmas, is the primary gift giving day. Parties may be held on the eve, December 5, and shoes or stockings left for St. Nicholas to fill during the night. Children will find treats of small gifts, fruit or nuts, and special Nicholas candies and cookies. St. Nicholas gifts are meant to be shared, not hoarded for oneself.
- He is the patron saint of pawn brokers and one of his symbols is the three golden balls seen hanging at many pawn shops. This arises from the story that he helped pay the dowry of three poor maidens, by dropping gold down the chimney, into the stockings hanging on the mantle to dry. This is also where we get our stocking tradition.
- In the stocking, an orange or tangerine in the toe represents this gift of gold, the candy cane represents his bishop’s crosier, and the “midnight visit” a reminder that St. Nicholas wanted to give in secret, so that people would thank God for blessings.
- In the west, he is a special patron saint of children, along with St. Christopher. In Greece, he is a patron saint of sailors and ships. He is the patron saint of Russain merchants, bakers, brewers, maidens, and more. There are more churches named for him than almost any other saint.
- In Ukraine, St. Nicholas is a special saint, for it was Prince Vladimir who brought back tales of the saint after he went to Constantinople to be baptized. The Ukrainian prince Vsevolod Yaroslavych introduced the feast of St. Nicholas during the time of Pope Urban II (1088-99 AD). St. Nicholas’ Day was a time of great fun in Ukraine. On this day, people would invite guests in and sleighs would be ridden around the village to see if the snow was slippery [icy]. This was the holiday for young children, for they would receive gifts from St. Nicholas, the patron saint of children. “St. Nicholas” was often accompanied by “angels” and might have quizzed the children on their catechism. St. Nicholas Day, not Christmas, is the usual gift-giving day in much of Europe including Ukraine, although for Christmas it was the custom of all members in the family to get a new article of clothing.
- In Great Britain, St. Nicholas visits on his feast day, and sometimes a boy is appointed to play the role of “bishop” for the day.
I wish for everyone a happy and blessed St. Nicholas Day!