Saint of the Day – St. Nicholas
December 6 is the feast of St. Nicholas, Bishop of Myra, in what is present day Turkey. He was born in the third century and lived through several official persecutions of Christians by the authorities. He was a participant in the Council of Nicea, where he opposed the teachings of Arius. He is one of the few saints of that time who were not martyrs.
St. Nicholas is the patron saint of sailors, ships, fishermen, harbor towns, children, bakers, and pawnbrokers. It is said that he was a defender of the falsely accused as well. These seem an odd combination of people and things of which to be patron, but stories are told that link him to each of them.
Nicholas’ parents were relatively wealthy and it may be that they had businesses related to fishing, sailing or the sea. Some reports say that he was himself a fisherman or sailor. He served as a priest during the persecution of Diocletian and Maximian, becoming a bishop sometime during the reign of Licinius (307-324). He was known for his charity and care for children and the poor. (It was his care for the poor which led to his status as patron of pawn brokers and their symbol of 3 gold balls, with which he is sometimes also depicted.)
Many stories are told of Nicholas’ care for the poor and for children, including the famous one of how he secretly provided money for the dowry of three young women who would not otherwise have been able to marry and would have been forced into prostitution. In one version of the stories, some of the coins fell into the stocking of the young woman as it hung drying on the fireplace. From this story we have developed the custom of hanging up stockings at Christmas to be filled with gifts from Santa Claus – a more recent name for the saint.
In many countries, children receive gifts for the feast of St. Nicholas. In some traditions, most of the gifts come from St. Nicholas on December 6. In others, a few gifts are received at that time and others on Christmas from the Christ Child.
In our own family, a few gifts arrive each year for the feast of St. Nicholas. When the children were small, a carrot was left for St. Nicholas’ donkey, and the children were delighted in the morning to find only a small stub of the carrot remained outside. The floor and their shoes and gifts were lightly dusted with glittery, golden “stardust” from his robes. It was all very exciting and magical. (As they got into high school and college, it became one of those things they’d never admit they liked, but I think they’d have been a bit disappointed if there hadn’t been “stardust” in the cracks of their shoes along with their gifts.)
Celebrating the feast of St. Nicholas has been a happy way for us to reduce the stress on gifts at Christmas and ease our family into the Christmas season. We celebrate this season of Advent through this and other feasts, “shortening” the time of waiting for Christmas to begin and to marking the passage of the days.