One of the things I believe the Protestant Reformers got wrong was removing any sense of devotion to saints. I understand the reason behind their objection but this, like other things, just went too far and we have removed a vibrant part of the history of the Universal Church. One of those saints is traditionally celebrated on December 6th, St. Nicholas the Wonderworker, the inspiration for Santa Clause.
It is believed that Nicholas was born in the late 3rd century in Patara, Lycia in Asia Minor to wealthy Christian parents and was an early Christian bishop of the ancient Greek city of Myra in Asia Minor (modern-day Demre, Turkey) during the time of the Roman Empire. Like most saints of that period, their life is not truly known; however, several legends are attributed to his life.
One of his earliest acts is said to have been rescuing three young girls from being forced into prostitution by secretly dropping sacks of gold coins, for three nights, through the window of their father’s house enabling his to pay the dowry for each of his daughters. It is from this legend that the tradition of placing shoes out on the eve of St. Nicholas day (December 5th) and placing gold coins and other small gifts in them. This secret gift giving is also where the tradition of the modern day Santa Clause comes from.
But, my favorite story comes from the first Church Council held in Nicea in the 325 AD. During that council, speakers would drown on for hours about deep spiritual and theological subjects. At some point during the debates, Nicholas had enough with one particular speaker Arius, who was later declared a heretic by the same council. Legend has it, Nicholas, totally exasperated with what Arius was saying, left his seat, walked over to Arius while he was speaking, and punched him in the face. This action landed Nicholas in jail, and he was forced to repent and offer an apology to Arius. It appears that not all saints always acted in a holy way.
There is much to be learned from the life of St. Nicholas, punching heretics notwithstanding, about sacrificial giving and helping those who are in need which is the real spirit of Christmas. We have the opportunity to support the “least of these” on Christmas Eve with the hat and mitten tree. Please consider a donation while you are out shopping. Just like the gift of gold coins St. Nicholas dropped through the window, your contribution might just save someone’s life.
This essay first appeared in the Newsletter of First Congregational Church of Salem, New Hampshire as my “From the Pastor” column.