Today, December 6, is Saint Nicholas Day. Around the world, children are waking up to discover candy and fruit and small toys tucked inside their shoes. (But wait a minute, you’re thinking, I thought Santa Claus came on Christmas Day!) Well, you’re not wrong: many people, especially Americans, smoosh St. Nicholas into Santa Claus and do the whole thing together with Christmas. In Europe, St. Nicholas Day is quite a bit more significant, however. Children put out their shoes or stockings before bed on December 5, and when they awaken in the morning, the shoes have been filled with treats.
It’s an odd tradition, when you step back and think about it. Candy in a shoe? Toys in a pair of socks? Why?
The story goes like this: Nicholas was a man who lived in modern-day Turkey from 270-343. He was the only child of wealthy Christian parents. They died when he was a young man, leaving Nicholas with a great deal of wealth. Nicholas was not at all greedy and preferred to live a simple life, so his wealth was largely untouched.
In another part of the city, there was a poor man who had three daughters. The daughters were growing up to adulthood, but the poor man couldn’t afford to provide them with money to get married. (In those days there was an expectation that brides bring a dowry into their marriages if they wanted to find good husbands.) Since the man was so poor, the girls were at risk of being trafficked into sex work in order to feed themselves.
When Nicholas heard about it, he took a sack of gold and went to the house at night. The girls had hung their stockings at the window to dry overnight, so he carefully dropped the gold into the oldest girl’s stocking. Thanks to Nicholas, she was able to marry and escape poverty and exploitation. Nicholas repeated the anonymous gift for the second daughter. By the time the third was old enough to marry, the poor father had gotten curious about their mystery benefactor, so he stayed up at night to see if another bag of gold was forthcoming. When Nicholas arrived in the night, the poor father recognized him at once and spread the word about Nicholas and his generosity all over the city.
Nicholas later became a bishop and was part of the group that created the Nicene Creed. While he was there, the legends say he got in a heated argument about the nature of Jesus Christ. While his opponent disagreed, Nicholas firmly insisted that Jesus Christ was of the same nature as God, not just similar to God. According to the story, Nicholas was so angry at this that he slapped his opponent. He was then asked to leave the meeting.
There’s a lot more to the life of St. Nicholas than I’ve written here. I share these two stories, though, to make one point: as Christians, we can have different ways of relating to different people. With the needy, vulnerable girls, Nicholas was recklessly generous. He didn’t start with a lecture to the girls about their sex lives or make the father feel guilty for failing to provide. He just gave what they needed. It was very different with that guy at the Nicene Creed meeting. He was a powerful leader of the church. It was really important that he get things right to avoid misleading his community.
Like Nicholas, when we see someone in desperate need who we can help, we don’t need to ask questions to determine their worthiness. We just need to help. And when we see someone in a position of power and influence, it’s right to hold them accountable to what they say. It’s not just good to do these things- it’s saint-like.
Dear God, thank you for your generosity toward me, shown in Jesus Christ and reflected in people like St. Nicholas. Help me to live a generous and thoughtful life in all ways. Amen.