Though in this country St. Nicholas Day, celebrated on December 6, generally gets short shrift, the feast, the stories and the traditions of St. Nicholas offer a sane alternative to rampant commercialism that prevails. Whether legend or history, the stories that mark St. Nicholas and his Feast are filled with gentle care for children, a spirit of giving, even concern for young women in peril.
The saga of St. Nicholas has roots in the 4th Century when Nicholas was widely known as the Bishop of Myra, a See that is in modern-day Turkey. Born a Greek into a wealthy Christian family in Asia Minor Nicholas was orphaned at an early age, reared by an uncle, and named to the bishopric before he was ordained (a detail soon remedied.) He was known as a generous man who gave his substantial inheritance to the poor, the sick, orphans and other poor children.
Though stories of Nicholas abound, it is his generosity that is most honored in celebration of his Feast. Catholicism, Eastern and Oriental Orthodoxy as well as Lutheranism and Anglicanism recognize the sainthood of Nicholas. Legends of his good deeds, and their symbols, are legion, including these key stories:
- Nicholas is often represented by various symbols of the dowry he offered to save impoverished young women from being sold into slavery because their father could not afford their dowry. The story is that Nicholas tossed the dowry money through a window where it landed in stockings left to dry near the fire. The three gold balls (sometimes usurped as symbols of the pawnbroker) are the most prevalent of the act, though gold coins, money bags and orange or apples also symbolize his largesse.
- The children in the tub point to Nicholas as the protector and patron saint of children, based on the story of his rescuing young children from various perils, some of which have a distinctly sordid element.
- Nicholas was also venerated for his protection of sailors and ships. That relationship is depicted by the symbol of a ship or an anchor.
- This is a stretch, but it is said that the candy cane is actually a symbol of Nicholas’ crozier, the hooked shepherd’s staff that recognizes the bishop’s care of the flock.
- The common thread of Nicholas’ generosity is the element of secrecy. Stories of the gifts and other acts of kindness invariably incorporate the theme that all of the sharing was anonymous with a heavy emphasis on the element of surprise heightened by the fact that the treats arrived under the cover of night. Gratitude was to be expressed not to the human donor but to the heavenly giver of good deeds.
Today the lore of St. Nicholas is celebrated in Central Europe, a highly Catholic region; many of the customs continue throughout Europe and in several U.S. communities, including Northeast Minneapolis and other areas in the Twin Cities, where residents trace their roots to the Ukraine, Poland, Romania, Czechoslovakia and other Eastern European nations. The Dutch of New Amsterdam carried the legend of St. Nicholas to the New World where the connection lives on in other American cities with significant German populations, such as Milwaukee, Cincinnati and St. Louis. I
Throughout the world, families and institutions that hold with tradition, celebration of St. Nicholas Day on December 6 remains an honored custom. By custom children set their shoes outside their bedroom doors on the evening of December 5. If they have been good, they will find on the morning of St. Nicholas Day that their shoes have been filled with small gifts, candy, fruit and lots of love.
It was the influence of Clement Moore that transformed St. Nicholas into today’s Santa Claus. From “jolly old St. Nick” to the stockings “hung by the chimney with care,” it is the legend of St. Nicholas that permeates “The Night Before Christmas” — which henceforth assumed most of the traditions that historically typified St. Nicholas Day.
Lost in translation or with time and unfettered capitalism is the spirit of St. Nicholas, precursor of Santa Claus. December 6, an Advent feast, suggests that a dip into the legends of the season are well worth a bit of research and a few moments of reflection. The stories add a meaningful – and delightful – aura to the holiday season.
(Clipart by Gertrude Mueller Nelson)