JOLIET – Christmas magic or absolute truth?
I wrestled with this question 35 years ago when my oldest son was a baby. The compromise for me was a holiday gift-giving tradition built around St. Nicholas.
What is known about St. Nicholas is a blend of fact and legend, but adopting this saint as our own began a cherished family tradition consistent with our Eastern Orthodox faith tradition.
According to Christianity today, more than 400 churches were built in Nicholas’ honor during the middle ages, and Nicholas remains a popular patron saint for many churches (including ours) to this day.
When my six kids were young, they hung their stockings on Dec. 5 (the eve of St. Nicholas’ Dec. 6 feast day) and emptied out their treasures the next morning – simple toys, candy chocolate coins and candy canes. No one partook until we read a our “candy cane blessing prayer.” I never elaborated on how the gifts got there.
As each child grew in discernment, they became givers and receivers. Today, we draw names, set a $20 limit and try to not divulge who picked whom. (Although we do usually figure it out).
Nothing sweetens a work day for me on Dec. 6 than a St. Nicholas candy cane and a mesh bag of chocolate coins.
Who was St. Nicholas?
According to the Encyclopedia Britannica, even the historical Nicholas is somewhat legend as there is no known historical document to prove his existence. He was reputedly born in Lycia to wealthy parents and became Bishop of Myra (located in Turkey) in the fourth century.
During the Roman emperor Diocletian’s persecution of Christians, Nicholas was imprisoned and later released by the emperor Constantine. Nicholas attended the first Council of Nicea in 325 AD, according to Encyclopedia Britannica. This supposedly led to a second arrest.
According to legend, Nicholas became so angry at when the heretic Arius denied the two natures of Christ – Jesus was both God and man – that Nicholas punched him, which landed him some prison time.
Still, legend also says Nicholas renounced his wealth and generously gave to the poor. After his death, miracles were attributed to Nicholas, giving him the moniker “Wonder-Worker,” according to Christianity Today.
The internet is full of stories of Nicholas’ benevolence, from reputed healings to providing dowries to maidens.
Great devotion to the saint spread through Europe after Nicholas’ death until the Protestant Reformation, where it disappeared, except in Holland, where Nicholas was known by the Dutch variation of his name: Sinterklaas, according to Encyclopedia Britannica.
Roman Catholics consider St. Nicholas to be the patron saint of children.
From saint to Santa
According to HISTORY.com, a New York newspaper reported on Dutch commemorations of the saint in the late 18th century.
At the second anniversary of the New York Historical Society in the early 19th century, one member distributed woodcuts of Nicholas engraved with stockings – laden with fruit and toys – hanging over a fireplace, HISTORY.com also said.
Washington Irving furthered the saint’s legend in his book “The History of New York” by referring to Nicholas as New York’s patron saint, the HISTORY.com also said.
The 1822 “An Account of a Visit from St. Nicholas,” by Clement C. Moore and American cartoonist Thomas Nast helped create the version Santa Claus version of St. Nicholas familiar to people today.
According to the St. Nicholas Center, over 40 countries have traditions surrounding Nicholas’ Dec. 6 feast day.
Looking for ways to introduce kids to St. Nicholas? The St. Nicholas Center offers a variety of activities, including printable coloring sheets, crafts, videos, stories and poems, games, puzzles and recipes. Here’s a few ideas from the site:
For more information about St. Nicholas and ideas for celebration, visit www.stnicholascenter.org.
IF YOU GO
WHAT: Christmas on the Prairie
WHEN: 2 to 6 p.m. Dec. 3
WHERE: Annunciation Byzantine Catholic Church, 14610 S Will Cook Road, Homer Glen
ETC: Crafts for kids, bake sale, visit from St. Nicholas with rides on his horse-drawn carriage.
COST: Free and open to the public.
KNOW MORE: Call 708-645-0241 or visit byzantinecatholic.com