During the Christmas season it has become traditional for us to spend a lot of time and energy and money on giving and receiving of gifts. How did this get started?
Much of the tradition of giving gifts during the Christmas season traces back to the person of St. Nicholas. Nicholas was born around 280 A.D., in the town of Patara which is along the south western coast of present day Turkey. He was the only child of wealthy Christian parents who died when he was young, leaving him with a large inheritance.
From a young age, Nicholas dedicated his life to Christ. He saw a similarity between himself and the “rich young ruler” whom Jesus admonished to “sell everything you have and give to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven,” so Nicholas made it a habit throughout his life to give rather than to horde.
It is difficult to differentiate legend from history in Nicholas’ life, but the story about Nicholas that is most well-known had to do with his compassion for a poor family with three daughters. Their father did not have enough money to pay their dowries, which meant that they might end up being forced into servitude or prostitution. Nicholas snuck over to their home one night and tossed a bag of money inside for the older daughter’s dowry. According to some traditions the money landed in a stocking hanging near the fireplace. Other traditions say the money landed in a shoe. Therefore, in some countries it is common to put gifts in stockings on St. Nicholas Day, which is December 6. People in other countries leave gifts in shoes on St. Nicholas Day. According to the stories, Nicholas repeated the same act of charity in following years for each of the daughters, before being caught by the father the third time who thanked deeply.
Jesus taught to do acts of charity not for the praise of others but anonymously. Nicholas tried to follow that counsel throughout his life. I think he would be mortified over the attention that is focused on him today.
A second thing he would be mortified over is the modern claim that Santa keeps a list of who is naughty and who is nice and that he gives only to those who are good. Nicholas believed strongly in the grace of God, that Jesus died for us even though we are sinners. God’s love is extended to us not on the basis of how good we are but on the basis of Christ’s forgiving love for us.
A third thing he would be mortified over is the idea of hiding away from the world at the North Pole. Nicholas was not a recluse but was very engaged with people in day-to-day life in the world. The times he was pulled away from the community were not times of his choosing but various times he was locked away in prison. He served as Bishop of Myra during the reign of the Roman Emperor Diocletian who ruthlessly persecuted Christians. It was said that during the reign of Diocletian there were times that the prisons were so full of bishops and priests and deacons that there was no room in the jails for murderers and thieves.
May we learn to give like Nicholas, not to gain the praise of others but out of true care for persons—especially those who may be in greatest need.
—Tom Tripp is the Pastor at the First Presbyterian Church of Colusa. Pastor Tripp can be reached by e-mail at email@example.com.