What would have happened, I wonder, if St. Nicholas had died in June instead of on the sixth of December? Would we have invented the strange red-and-white clad elf with the sleigh and reindeer gifting children world wide in the middle of the night before Christmas? Or would St. Nicholas’ feast day have been about putting presents in shoes or stockings while the Christian midwinter celebration was solely about the birth of God into the world?
I’m sure Bishop Nicholas would be horrified to learn what a long shadow he cast simply by the act of giving gifts to the children of his see. He wasn’t thinking at all about Christ’s birth when he did this; he did it all the time, all year round. And he didn’t try to meet each secret longing with the perfect present. He just put something in the children’s shoes that was a surprise and a delight – a little thing. And he started with the poorest.
There is something about midwinter itself, though, that provokes in us the desire to give. In the natural world the supremacy of darkness and cold gives way and new light is born. It’s a time for celebration and joy. With this change comes hope, and with hope comes the recognition of our connections and the inclination to somehow honor them. And so we send notes and gifts to family and friends. It’s natural.
We tend to blame the desperate madness of Christmas buying and giving on the focus we place on Santa Claus, but, truth be told, we are the ones who buy into the hype – into the need to get the perfect present. Why can’t we learn – and teach our families – that our longings aren’t met by getting (or giving) the absolutely right stuff? The longings are for love – and magic – and most importantly God.
Sometimes we give to unlikely people. We hear the neighbor kids say Santa won’t be coming to their house this year, and we buy some things we know they’d like and leave them on their porch in the middle of the night before Christmas. Or we hear about a town in Haiti where the children need shoes or school uniforms, and we send money to organizations who buy those things and who can distribute them properly. We buy the guy ringing the Salvation Army bell a cup of coffee, send money to the Food Bank and to the Heifer Project, make a special card for the janitor at our children’s school, and leave a plate of cookies all wrapped up with a bow in the park where the street people hang out.
These are the sorts of gestures that St. Nicholas would understand. Sneaking around in the middle of the night to bring joy, delight and necessary relief to people in need was what he was all about. He did it as anonymously as possible so those receiving the gifts would credit God. Let’s carry on his legacy this Christmas season – and in the rest of the year as well. Happy giving!
Laurie Gudim is a religious iconographer and liturgical artist, a writer and lay preacher living in Fort Collins, CO. See her work online at Everyday Mysteries With others she manages a website for the Diocese of Colorado highlighting congregations’ creative ministries: Fresh Expressions Colorado