I’m not going to lie, friends. Prior to writing this post, I did not know much about St. Nicholas. Sure, I knew the familiar Christmas tunes, the heated debates of whether to introduce children to St. Nick vs. Santa Claus (mostly in Catholic circles), and vaguely remembered a story of him slapping a heretic courtesy of this meme. But overall, I did not really know who he was.
So, when I was writing this blog post for his feast day, I took it as an excuse to learn more about another holy example in our beautiful tradition and to figure out why friends of mine were all about having their shoes filled with oranges and chocolate coins. To those of us who are only vaguely familiar with St. Nicholas separate from Santa, the treats in the shoes is likely the piece of the story we have heard of.
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A Semi-Hot Take
That in mind, from an outsider’s perspective, celebrating St. Nicholas Day might seem like a faint attempt at “reclaiming” the Christmas season. We take secularized Santa Claus, Catholic him up a bit by returning to his saintly roots, and voila! Another day around the “holidays” where we give our children gifts. But this one is better because it goes against the mainstream culture of materialism surrounding Christmastime…because our gifts are simpler…maybe…right?…
All sarcasm aside, I do think it is easy to fall into traditions and outward signs of celebrations without remembering why we have the traditions in the first place and what they are supposed to point to (hint hint: Jesus). What can make this feast day truly stand apart and call us to live out the Gospel message is not just the outward sign of traditional shoe-fillery, but rather the intentional learning about who St. Nicholas was and how this holy man’s example can lead us to Christ.
Truthfully, this could be said about any holiday or Holy Day or day we celebrate. It is always worth taking a step back and asking what about it is pointing us to God.
A Brief History of St. Nicholas
St. Nicholas was born in the third century to a wealthy family who raised him devoutly in the Faith. His parents died when he was young. Nicholas used his inheritance to serve those on the margins, truly taking our Christian call to care for the most vulnerable to heart.
At a young age he was made Bishop of Myra (modern day Turkey) and was well known for his continued generosity for those in need. He died on December 6, 343 AD in Myra, which is now the day we now celebrate in his honor.
So Why the Shoes?
St. Nicholas is literally legendary. There are multiple stories and legends surrounding this generous man and his heavenly intercession. One of the more recognized legends involved a poor man with three daughters who were in danger of being sold into prostitution because he could not afford to marry them off (which would have guaranteed protection in ancient days). It is said that on three separate occasions, gold appeared in their home. This helped them out of the financial situation they were desperately praying to get out of.
This is the story that eventually lead to the tradition of leaving stockings or shoes out for St. Nicholas to fill with gifts. This is what ultimately created this idea of St. Nick as a gift-giver.
A Larger Lesson
But these gifts of chocolate coins and oranges (from versions of the story where the family finds gold balls in their home) represent so much more than just a present from a friend or family member. The original gifts shared by St. Nicholas were those that lifted the lowly and cared for those in need.
Now I’m not saying that when you celebrate St. Nicholas Day with your family, you should sit your three-year-old down and explain that the chocolate coins she found in her shoes represent the dowry it took to guarantee a man would want to marry a woman on the edge of being sold into slavery (know your audience, friends. But it is certainly worth explaining the generosity of this amazing man, specifically in regards to those in need. It was not his wealth, but the way he used it, that made him a Saint. Similarly, we are called to use the resources we have been blessed with for the betterment of others. People of all ages can benefit from that message and that Christian call.
Celebrating St. Nicholas Day
Attending Mass on a beloved Saint’s feast day is always a fantastic way to celebrate their honor. But here are a few additional options for those interested in digging in a little deeper with St. Nick this year.
There are so many wonderful children’s books about St. Nicholas. These are great to leave by shoes and read together on the feast day.
Serve Those in Need
Another great way to celebrate this feast day would be serving those on the margins. Maybe you and your friends can share a meal with our neighbors experiencing homelessness. Perhaps consider donating to an organization committed to helping eradicate sex trafficking like Catholic Relief Services.
Pray for the Most Vulnerable
One more wonderful option is praying aloud with your family and including specific intentions for the most in need in our world on St. Nicholas Day.
The Best Way to Celebrate St. Nicholas? Love God More.
I am arguably the least “liturgical living” savvy, so please do not think these suggestions are anything more than just that: suggestions. Ultimately, the holy men and women we love in Heaven only want us to know the love of God more fully. So long as we are genuinely striving to know and love our amazing Creator, we are moving in the right direction. Candy-filled shoes and all.
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Sarah Stanley is a small town Ohio girl who is mildly obsessed with all things Ignatian and is very passionate about faith, social justice, and the intersection of the two. She recently earned her Master of Divinity and now serves as the Director of Christian Service at a high school in New England. When she’s not working, she enjoys contagious laughter, travel, clever puns, and finding the good in all things. You can find out more about her here.