From Bishop to Gift Giver
Every December 6, in cities and towns and villages, people primarily in Europe celebrate Saint Nicholas Day. Images of St. Nicholas vary considerably, but none of them look much like the red-cheeked, white-bearded old man seen everywhere today.
How did this Nicholas turn into the North Pole-dwelling bringer of Christmas gifts? Nicholas was a Greek, born around 280 A.D. He became bishop of Myra, a small Roman town in modern Turkey. Nicholas was neither fat nor jolly but developed a reputation as a fiery, wiry, and defiant defender of church doctrine during the Great Persecution, when Bibles were burned, and priests were made to renounce Christianity or face execution. Nicholas defied these edicts and spent years in prison before the Roman emperor Constantine ended Christian persecution in the year 313.
Nicholas' fame lived long after his death (December 6, 343) because he was associated with many miracles, and reverence for him continues to this day, independent of his Christmas connection. He is the protector of many types of people, from orphans to sailors to prisoners.
Nicholas rose to prominence among the saints because of his charitable giving. While still a young man, he inherited great wealth from his parents, and instead of spending it all on himself, Nicholas sought for ways to benefit others.
In one of the better-known stories from his life, Nicholas saved three young girls from a life of prostitution by secretly delivering three bags of gold on three separate occasions to their indebted father, which could then be used for their dowries. The father, curious of who might be the secret gift giver, stays awake on the night of his youngest daughter’s coming-of-age celebration, and catches Nicholas in the act of throwing a bag of gold through the open window.
Nicholas does not want his acts of charity to be known, and the father promises to keep the secret. However, over time, the truth leaked out, and that is why Nicholas became the symbol of secret gift giving over time.
After the Protestant Reformation, saints like Nicholas fell out of favor across much of northern Europe. That was problematic: now who is going to bring gifts to the children?
In many cases, that job fell to baby Jesus, and the date was moved to Christmas rather than December 6. But the infant's carrying capacity is very limited, and he is not very scary either, so the Christ child was often given a scary helper to do the lugging of presents and the threatening of kids that doesn't seem appropriate coming from the baby Jesus.
Some of these scary Germanic figures again were based on Nicholas, no longer as a saint but as a threatening sidekick like Ru-klaus (Rough Nicholas), Aschenklas (Ashy Nicholas), and Pelznickel (Furry Nicholas). These figures expected good behavior or suffer the consequences, like a piece of coal in one’s stocking instead of a chocolate bar. Dissimilar as they seem to the jolly man known hereabouts as Santa Claus, these colorful characters would figure in the development of the modern-day version of Santa himself.
So this December 6, on the feast day of Saint Nicholas, you might want to join millions of other people around the world by lighting a candle, and placing an orange or tangerine on each other’s plates, and express your gratitude for the gift of each person near and dear to your heart.
Pastor Daniel Hofmann