By Jackie Jamison
December 6th of this year marks 1,674 years since the death of St. Nicholas of Myra. St. Nicholas is a saint beloved in both the Eastern and Western church. He was born about 280 A.D. near Myra, an ancient Greek maritime city in modern-day southwestern Turkey. He was the only child of wealthy parents who died when he was a young man. A devout Christian who used his inheritance to help the poor, Nicholas became a bishop at just 30 years old. He was jailed for seven years during a persecution of Christians led by the Roman Emperor Diocletian. As one of the participants of the first Council of Nicea in 325, he allegedly slapped the heretic Arius across the face. He was one of the few early Christian saints who lived to old age without being martyred.
Nicholas’ generosity and kindness became the material of legends, most famously the gold he gave for dowries to three girls who would otherwise have been forced into prostitution by their father. Tradition has it that he threw his gold in through the window of the girls’ home on three consecutive nights, and some of it landed in a stocking which was drying on the fireplace mantle. Another legend says that Nicholas brought three children back to life who had been chopped up by a butcher and put in a barrel of brine. When Nicholas visited the Holy Land, according to yet another story, his ship was nearly destroyed by a terrible storm before he rebuked the waves and stilled the storm. These legends cannot be independently substantiated, but there are records to demonstrate that Nicholas intervened to release three innocent men who were sentenced to death by a corrupt magistrate.
As Anglicans, we celebrate the Feast of St. Nicholas to remember and celebrate the extraordinary life of one of our brothers in Christ. Celebrating feast days may feel foreign to those of us who grew up in very Protestant churches. Why do we not just worship Jesus? Why waste our time on St. Nicholas? First, December 6th is not a day to worship St. Nicholas. We celebrate St. Nicholas in order to help us worship God the Holy Trinity more. Taking the time to know more about St. Nicholas—a real person who wholeheartedly and remarkably followed Christ—helps remind us that we’re not in this Christian walk alone. The Christian faith has been borne on the shoulders of men for many centuries, and in the family of brothers and sisters who have gone before us, we can find many heroes who have fought the good fight and who can give us inspiration for how to fight our own fight today. But celebrating saints’ days goes beyond a simple remembrance, because we are truly part of the unbroken communion of the Church militant and triumphant. As we learn about the wonderful story of St. Nicholas, he prays for us so that we may grow in Christ.
Celebrating feast days does not have to be a demanding task and can be as simple as reading the collect for the saint at dinner. (The collect for saints not found in the Prayer Book can be found on www.CommonPrayer.org if you go to the Calendar and click on the saint’s day.) But feast days are also a wonderful time to truly celebrate: make a special dessert or a special meal, say Evening Prayer as a family, go to Mass, use a tablecloth or candles that is the liturgical color of the day (most saints days are red, indicating martyrdom, though St. Nicholas’ Day is actually white). The tradition associated with St. Nicholas’ day is for children to leave their shoes out by the fireplace on the night of December 5th to be filled with sweets or small gifts. A popular choice is to fill shoes with chocolate coins in honor of the gold coins that fell into the stockings.
If you already include Santa in your Christmas celebrations, consider emphasizing the historicity of St. Nicholas instead of just the Americanized elf-ish version of him. I wrote Is Santa Real? How Saint Nicholas Became Santa Claus to help families like mine with children who have heard a lot about Santa Claus and are ready to learn the truth behind that legend. Like all the saints, Nicholas points us to Jesus as we learn about him, and he prays for us.
ALMIGHTY and everlasting God, who didst enkindle the flame of thy love in the heart of thy servant Nicholas: Grant to us, thy humble servants, the same faith and power of love; that, as we rejoice in his triumph, we may profit by his example; through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.
Jackie Jamison lives in Charlottesville, Virginia, with her husband and three kids. She is a writer and editor. Most recently she has authored Is Santa Real? and Anglican Prayers for Children.