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Can we rescue Saint Nicholas?

Fourth-century churchman has been hijacked by commercialism

It’s December. Parents are trying to survive the pre-Christmas rush, and very possibly trying to find ways to simplify the season. Children are trying to figure out how to convince their parents that their ever-expanding wish-lists are reasonable and proper.
In the midst of all of it, a fourth century Christian churchman, later declared a saint (not in the tradition of St. Paul, who says all the baptized are saints), has ended up serving as unlikely referee for this annual mid-winter madness. Nicholas, the bishop of Myra (a Greek city during the days of the Roman Empire, when he lived), and his legacy, have been significantly revised and edited since his life and ministry ended.
Nobody might care much about Nicholas, except that his legacy has become pervasive, and in the process significantly changed (hijacked?) throughout the Christian world. All over Europe, and in North America as well, Nicholas has morphed into someone and something far from whom and what he really was.

Saint Nicholas visits Arlington Hills Lutheran Church in early December 2010. Rumor has it that he will be back in 2011. Photos credit: Anita Rylander

Nicholas and his legacy have been significantly revised and edited since his life and ministry ended.

In the Middle Ages and continuing into the modern era, Nicholas (under one name or another) seems to have become an advocate for sailors (and in some traditions, even thieves!), a friend of merchants, and a defender of the honor of young unmarried women. But by far his most-familiar identification is with children.
In some cultures, Nicholas has become a bringer of gifts. (If this reminds us of Santa Claus, it is not an accident; one has descended from the other, although Santa isn’t much like the real Nicholas.) Frequently the gifts come with a warning, or even a threat. According to many European practices, good boys and girls receive gifts from Nicholas; naughty children get nothing — or worse, punishment.

The economics of Nicholas

So, what do we know for sure about Nicholas, the bishop of Myra? As it turns out, not as much as we’d like. He seems clearly to have been beloved by his parishioners, and to have been a believer in social justice. He was also an activist. When he saw need, he took steps to address it.
But even Nicholas’ life and ministry have turned into myth. There are fantastic tales about how he became aware of three hapless men who had been slaughtered by a butcher (other versions say three young boys). Nicholas miraculously brought the victims back to life.
A more believable tale is one concerning three young women, sisters of marriageable age. Following ancient custom, their parents needed a dowry (marriage gift) with which to present them to prospective husbands. Lacking these, the women faced lives of prostitution. (Unmarried women didn’t have a lot of economic options in those days.) Nicholas, a favorite — and possibly authentic — story goes, secretly collected money from wealthy parishioners and then, again secretly, delivered three bags of gold to the father, one dowry for each daughter. Thus began the tradition of Nicholas as a bringer of gifts.
In modern American culture Nicholas has effectively been replaced with “the fat guy in the red suit with the white beard.” The expectation is that “Saint Nicholas” (aka Santa Claus) will give children what they want at Christmas. This is a long way from the original meaning of Nicholas’ ministry — giving material help to those who really need it.

Saint Nick travels to Arlington Hills

One Twin Cities congregation has decided to bring Saint Nicholas back to life. An article in the October 2011 issue of the ELCA church magazine The Lutheran describes what Arlington Hills Lutheran Church in St. Paul, Minnesota, did last year on December 6. Eighty-six-year-old Bob Hansen showed up wearing a Nicholas costume, complete with bishop’s hat and mitre. It was a Saturday and the congregation was having a tree-lighting ceremony.

At Arlington Hills Lutheran Church (ELCA), St. Paul, preparations for St. Nicholas’ visit are fast-paced and include the children.

In modern American culture Nicholas has effectively been replaced with “the  fat guy in the red suit with the white beard.”

Says Anita Rylander, who wrote the article for The Lutheran, “Because the costume didn’t have to be returned until Monday, [Nicholas] also made a surprise visit to worship the next morning during the children’s sermon.” Rylander says Nicholas (Hansen) will make a return appearance this year.
The Arlington Hills congregation did the original Nicholas and his legacy proud. They collected donated gifts to give to needy children.
Lutheran families wanting to redirect their children’s (and their relatives’) energies away from giving gifts to each other on the day when the focus should be on Jesus, might want to consider a change. We can tell our children we’ll give them gifts on their birthdays, but we’ll mark Christmas as Jesus’ birthday (the best way to do that is to worship him). And then, on December 6, we’ll collect and distribute gifts for people we know, those who need them more than we do.
That would honor the fourth-century bishop’s legacy like nothing else could.

Good or bad? Rich or poor?

This author and his spouse, Kathe, took a counter-cultural step 40 years ago. We ended the Christmas gift-giving custom with our very young children before they were old enough to expect Christmas gifts. Instead, we focused on Nicholas and his feast day (December 6). We made a financial gift to people in need. Our daughters embraced the meaning of the day by creating their own puppet show (which included the Bishop of Myra, a wealthy patron, and a needy family).
Readers of Metro Lutheran who are curious about how this all played out can read the story, titled “Hello Saint Nicholas, Goodbye Santa Claus,” originally published in The Lutheran Standard. Go to the website (The editor of the Standard told the author that the piece garnered more reader response than anything he’d ever published up until then. He said, “I didn’t run the story because I like your new custom, even though I do; I published it because I’m a firm believer in the idea that parents shouldn’t lie to their children — about Santa Claus or anything else.”)
—Michael L. Sherer

Some fun facts about Saint Nicholas

* The feast day of Saint Nicholas is December 6.
* Saint Nicholas was born into wealth, but dedicated his life to serving the poor.
* Saint Nicholas was elected bishop of Myra even though he was not yet a priest.
* Saint Nicholas was present at the Council of Nicaea.
* There are more than 2,000 churches named for Saint Nicholas.
* In late Medieval England, parishes held yuletide “boy bishop” celebrations on Saint Nicholas Day. As part of the celebration, young people performed the functions of priests and bishops, exercising rule over their elders.
* Saint Nicholas, in Roman Catholic tradition, is referred to as the patron saint of orphans, possibly because he was an orphan himself.
* Santa Claus’ traditional red costume may be based on Saint Nicholas’ red bishop’s robe.
Ella Masters, a first-year student at the University of Minnesota—Twin Cities and a member of Holy Trinity Lutheran Church (ELCA), Minneapolis, helped with the research on the history of Saint Nicholas.

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