Saint Nicholas is one of the first Saints of the church, after those mentioned in the New Testament, that I learned about as a child (Santa Lucia was the other one, but that’s for another post). Protestants aren’t big on Saints, “All Christians are saints.”, so the logic goes. But being German remembering Saint Nicholas on December sixth was a significant for my father. He relished telling us of the real Saint Nick. I grew up hearing about that fourth century bishop, Saint Nicholas of Myra when most other kids my age were hearing about some guy in a read suit at the North Pole with flying reindeer. I never received a gift from Santa Clause. Each year dad would remind my sister and I of the “real Santa Claus”. We didn’t really celebrate St Nicholas day. On occasion there might have been chocolate, European chocolates, but no gifts and no mention of Krampus. I didn’t learn much about St. Nicholas of Myra, beyond his being a bishop and that he gave a gift of bags of gold to three daughters of a poor widower.
This limited knowledge created a great puzzle for me. Why in the world did Saint Nicholas a bishop from what is today Turkey, ever end up being associated with a figure that lives at the North Pole with magical reindeer? Why is St Nicholas associated with Christmas at all even in the distorted figure of Santa Claus? As a child December sixth was a long way off from Christmas. Except for Saint Nicholas and Santa Lucia we never celebrated Saints days. We celebrated Advent, but I was also a little vague on its relationship to Christmas (there was a time I attempted to figure out how the Twelve Days of Christmas counted in the song fit in Advent) . Myra wasn’t in Germany, Nicholas wasn’t German. It was all very perplexing.
Saint Nicholas was a popular saint among Europeans, he wasn’t German, or French, or Italian, or Dutch, he was Middle Eastern, a citizen of the Roman empire. Our love of Saint Nicholas wasn’t because he was German, but because we came to belong to him, that is we became Christ’s.
This puzzle kept a fourth century Middle Eastern bishop as a significant figure for my Christian identity. Eventually I learned more about the Liturgical calendar and embraced the Saints as those that imaged for us Christ, and with whom we are in communion, as those who have died in Christ. In this fuller knowledge of the life and culture of the church, the puzzles resolved themselves as I had all the pieces. My dad’s strange Germanic affection for this Bishop of Myra (who wasn’t even German) worked itself in me, kept me asking who is this Saint Nicholas and why is he so important.
As my parents spoke of this Saint, I was taught the story of what it means to be like Christ, through the example of someone different from me and the community in which I grew up. Saint Nicholas taught us that exchange of gifts at Christmas wasn’t supposed to be about things and receiving. The gifts were a reminder that the Christian life was to be one of self-giving, because God gave of God’s self to us. Generosity and justice, not greed and accumulation, was the meaning of the gift giving at Christmas, St. Nicholas of Myra a Fourth century bishop helped us remember this. He was an exemplar of this divine self-giving, the divine generosity in which we were to share in and emulate.
One won’t get this from the cultural celebrations of the Germans and the Austrians and other Europeans any more than you will get this from the Jolly man in the red suit who comes down your chimney bearing gifts. But my father gave me a gift of remembering this fourth century bishop, the “real Santa Claus.” Dad allowed the cultural memory of this Saint, to instill in me a sense of generosity and love, that bound me, an American son of immigrants, to someone beyond my nationality and ethnicity.
There’s no reason, neither based on American Manifest Destiny nor German heritage, that I should know or care to remember Saint Nicholas. There is only one reason, that God entered the world in Jesus of Nazareth, the Christ, and in a chain, that crossed all boundaries, grabbed hold of a fourth century orphan of wealthy merchants, whose Christ like generosity and zeal for justice, grabbed the hearts and souls of Germans. This Saint Nicholas ever teaches us of Christ. Through him we are called to be zealous for a world transformed by love, generosity, and justice, given to us in Jesus Christ, God in human flesh.