Someone dear to me once played Santa in a delightful way. At Christmastime a family that lived near to her was struggling. She was not well off herself, but she had come into a small windfall. She secretly purchased bicycles for the children and sneaked over near midnight on Christmas eve to leave them on the family’s porch.
This is the kind of generosity embodied by the saint whose feast day we celebrate today. The image above is “Jolly old St. Nicholas” in his original form. He was bishop of Myra, which is in current day Turkey, back in the Fourth Century. He was a sneak. He would observe the needs of the people of his town and lurk about their homes at night, secretly gifting them with resources that changed their fortune.
Because he was the patron saint of sailors, having calmed a storm on a journey he once made to the Holy Land, his story was carried all across Europe. He became the archetypal embodiment of the unearned and utterly surprising generosity that sometimes comes into our lives at the bleakest moments.
Perhaps it’s a small step to link the generous Christian saint with Christ himself, who gave everything for us in his incarnation. But it also makes us crazy. We bemoan the commercialization of Christmas even as we rush around finding just the right gifts for all our loved ones, hoping to surprise them with delight and wonder. Hoping they will feel loved.
In Europe there is no conflict between the gifting that is the province of St. Nicholas and the holy celebration of the birth of Christ. St. Nicholas’s day is celebrated all on its own, today, December 6, and this is when gifts are given. It is apparently a highly festive and boisterous time of generosity and surprise.
The Anglican tradition, honoring the quiet and solemnity of Advent as it does, downplays this happy holiday. And in America – except among Eastern Orthodox folk – St. Nicholas has been swallowed up by Santa Claus. As my friend, Ann Fontaine, used to say, we can often find the Christ child in Christmas yard displays off in a corner somewhere, quietly going about the business of being born while all the focus is on the hoopla of the pulsing lights, laughing Santas, glamorous reindeer and industrious elves. (He is still there, she would say.)
The goal of Advent is that we clear away room in our hearts for the mind-boggling miracle of God’s birth into the world. Gift-giving can actually be part of it all, reflecting how we are tugged by God out of complacent self-centeredness and made the hands and heart of Christ in the world.
Perhaps there is some middle way. Let’s pray for the help of St. Nicholas, who stands for that impulse to give in the most holy of ways. In this time of watching and waiting there is room for our generous souls.