This morning my five year old daughter Claire awoke wanting to run downstairs and check her shoes. Last night she'd left them, along with her stocking, by the main ductwork of our heating system, which in our home is marked out by a pretty, though faux chimneypiece, a dark green tile "firebox," and an antique heat vent of ironwork in a vine pattern.
Fortunately, the secret emissary (otherwise known as my lovely wife, Laurel) who was sent to help commemorate St. Nicholas had the wherewithal to place the candy-filled shoes up on the mantle - out of the reach of a curious feline who is invariably attracted to anything in a shiny foil wrapper, the ravenous canine who will eat anything below knee-level, and the chocolate-melting forced hot air that blows considerably less from the vent after midnight.
Today, of course, is December 6th, on which the church has long remembered the onetime Bishop of Myra who died on this day in AD 342. Nicholas had been born to a wealthy Christian family, though was later orphaned during an epidemic, after which he sold his inheritance to succor the needs of the poor and sick of his region of what is now modern Turkey.
During his lifetime he was known for his loving kindness to children, great deeds of generosity, and concern for sailors and ships. Like many bishops in his day, he suffered persecution and exile during the reign of Emperor Diocletian, though later was able to enjoy freedom after the Edict of Milan proclaimed religious tolerance in 313, paving the way for the great gathering of bishops at Nicaea in 325, which Nicholas attended.
Perhaps the most well known customs surrounding St. Nicholas - the ones in which our Claire joined - have to do with a story concerning the three daughters of a very poor man. In centuries past, only a girl with a sizable dowry would have been marriageable. With three daughters, a poor man might be able to scrape enough together in order to marry off at least one daughter, leaving the others to stay at home, be sold into slavery, or enter the life of a religious celibate.
In this particular case, the man was so
poor, that none of his daughters could marry and they faced the dire possibility of slavery, which was often attended by a rather worse fate for girls, as is likewise the case even today with female victims of human trafficking. (That observation, on a lighter note, calls to mind Claire's comment, while helping decorate the tree this past weekend. Laurel was placing the ornaments on the tree as Claire took them from their box, making sure each had a wire hanger attached. Our five year old quipped, "Mommy, you can be a hanger and I'll be a hooker.")
Returning to the story of the poor man: one morning, the legend goes, the man awoke to find that a stocking hung by the fire to dry now bulged with a sack of gold coins, apparently tossed in through the open window. It would be enough for one daughter's dowry. Another night a second sack of gold appeared, providing for a second daughter and then, another night, a third sack of gold. And so, through the secret generosity of Bishop Nicholas, the girls were rescued from what would otherwise have been a most unfortunate future.
And these sorts of stories have shaped traditions down to contemporary culture from the Greeks to the Dutch and beyond. In his wonderfully and wistfully funny book, Dress Your Family in Corduroy and Denim
, story writer David Sedaris tells of a trip to the Netherlands in which a Dutch friend explained to him their customs concerning St. Nicholas.
Sedaris notes how, unlike the "jolly, obese American Santa," the saint is "painfully thin and dresses not unlike the pope, topping his robes with a tall hat resembling an embroidered tea cozy" - of course, a reference to the bishop's mitre, from Nicholas' former vocation in Myra. Sedaris comments upon how wrongly this struck him, noting that St. Nick is "not retired and, more important, he has nothing to do with Turkey. It's too dangerous there and the people wouldn't appreciate him."
Sedaris continues by relating how, in Dutch versions of St. Nicholas, instead of elves, the saint is accompanied by six to eight black men (a curious holdover from an era in which African slavery prevailed, ironic given Nicholas' efforts to rescue others from slavery). And, rather than leaving lumps of coal for naughty children, he kicks them and beats them with a switch or, in the case of especially recalcitrant delinquents, throws them into his sack and sails away with them.
Sedaris' whole story is well worth a read, simply for the comedic value. But his story does underscore what a travesty St. Nicholas has become under the care of his American handlers who, in keeping with our so-called "values," have fattened him up on cola and corn chips, put him on jolly-producing Prozac, privatized his religion, and set him working to make sure the 2007 sales figures exceed last year's.
Over the centuries, our European ancestors' children commemorated the life and Christian witness of Nicholas as the good Bishop of Myra and servant of Jesus Christ. In many cultures they would place their shoes or a stocking by the fire (or radiator or stove or, in our case, heat vent) on the eve of December 6th, often filled with hay or carrots or a turnip for St. Nicholas' horse (no, not reindeer, which were hardly common in 4th century Asia Minor). Then, in the morning, they would find those shoes and stockings filled with oranges or a handful of change or treats or gold foil wrapped chocolate coins, reminding them of the stories associated with this great saint of the church.
Today Claire - who knows the story of kind pastor Nicholas who lived long ago - was probably among a dwindling number of heirs to these older traditions, though even her experience had its own contemporary twist. In addition to foil wrapped chocolate kisses and candy canes reminiscent of a bishop's crozier, she found a new lavender shirt with a silver and white glittering steed emblazoned across the front, which she immediately recognized as Nicholas' trusty horse.
For more on life and legends of Nicholas of Myra visit the St Nicholas Center
Almighty God, in your love
you gave your servant Nicholas of Myra
a perpetual name for deeds of kindness
both on land and sea:
Grant, we pray,
that your Church may never cease to work
for the happiness of children,
the safety of sailors,
the relief of the poor,
and the help of those tossed
by tempests of doubt or grief;
through Jesus Christ our Lord,
who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit,
one God, for ever and ever.