When Chris first asked me to preach today, I threatened to preach on St. Nicholas instead of on the readings for the second Sunday of Advent. Of course, Chris decided this was a wonderful idea. And I can’t really complain too much because St. Nicholas has been part of my life for as long as I can remember. I grew up the child of two Polish immigrants and my parents strived to make sure that Polish traditions and customs were ingrained in us. Every year on December 6, we’d wake up and search for presents. They might be under our pillows or in our shoes or they might be strewn around the house. They were never wrapped (St. Nicholas doesn’t wrap presents) and never big. There would be some candy or chocolate (usually including a piece of chocolate wafer cake), oranges or clementines, and then something like winter socks, long underwear or pajamas. Occasionally, there’d be a small toy. It didn’t matter what we got as long as there was something. Eventually, of course, we knew that my parents were the ones who put out the presents, but that never stopped us from believing because the presents were distributed ‘in the name of St. Nicholas’- my parents were his agents. Even when we moved away from home, we would always get a care package for St. Nick’s day with the same type of present. It was tradition.
St. Nicholas wasn’t just around the house though – he’d be at Polish School, Polish Scouts and the Polish Christmas pageants (and the Christmas around the world show we did at the Museum of Science and Industry in Chicago). Of course, this was where someone dressed up as him. St. Nicholas wore red – but it wasn’t the red and white of Santa Claus and there was no belly that shook like a bowl full of jelly. St. Nicholas was a bishop – who walked around in red and gold bishop robes with a mitre on his head and a staff in his hand and two angels in attendance. One was the good angel who came to distribute presents and praise those who had been good. The other carried a bundle of sticks with which to affectionately spank children who were naughty. Never hard, but just to encourage them to be better. When St. Nicholas came, every child would be questioned by him – it wasn’t just were you good or bad – there were specifics. Did you go to church? Did you say your prayers? Did you listen to your parents? It was almost like confession. This was the St. Nicholas I grew up with – a bishop who walked with angels, who left trinkets under the pillow or in your shoes on December 6 – not the American Santa Claus who came down the chimney on Dec 25.
But who was St. Nicholas? After all, this tradition (and others like it across Europe) had to come from somewhere. Why did this saint get associated with presents for children? Turns out, Saint Nicholas was a real person. He was known as Nikolaos of Myra during his lifetime – a Greek man who became bishop of Myra (which is a place in Modern day Turkey). He lived from about 270 to 346 AD in the Mediterranean. The earliest accounts of his life tell us that he was born to wealthy Christian parents who sent him to study scripture when he was five years old. His parents died while he was young and he was raised by his uncle who was a priest. Nicholas himself became a priest and later bishop of Myra (probably when he was about 30 years old). Not long after this, he was imprisoned by the emporer Diocletian for a number of years and released when Constantine came to power. Supposedly he was at the council of Nicea where he was a staunch opponent of heresy – stories have it that Nicholas slapped the arch-heretic Arius in face! (Of course, we don’t know if this is true, but it certainly makes for a good story).
But how did this bishop who was known for his opposition to heresy, become the patron saint of children and the needy? Well, those wealthy parents of his – the ones who died young – they left him a lot of money. Money that Nicholas decided to use to help the poor and needy.
One of the earliest stories about Nicholas helping the poor and needy is that of St. Nicholas helping a poor man with three daughters. In those days a young woman's father had to offer prospective husbands something of value— a dowry. The larger the dowry, the better the chance that a young woman would find a good husband. Without a dowry, a woman was unlikely to marry. This poor man's daughters, without dowries, were therefore destined to be sold into slavery. Mysteriously, on three different occasions, a bag of gold appeared in their home-providing the needed dowries. The bags of gold, tossed through an open window, are said to have landed in stockings or shoes left before the fire to dry. Sometimes the story is told with gold balls instead of bags of gold. That is why three gold balls, sometimes represented as oranges, are one of the symbols for St. Nicholas and one of the presents often given on St. Nicholas’ Day.
Another story tells of Nicholas helped free innocent men. The governor had been bribed to condemn three innocent men to death. On the day fixed for their execution Nicholas stayed the hand of the executioner and released them. Then he turned to the governor and reproved him so sternly that he repented. In the West the story took on more and more fantastic forms; in one version the three officers become three theological students, traveling on their way to study in Athens. A wicked innkeeper robbed and murdered them, hiding their remains in a large pickling tub. It so happened that Bishop Nicholas, traveling along the same route, stopped at this very inn. In the night he dreamed of the crime, got up, and summoned the innkeeper. As Nicholas prayed earnestly to God the three boys were restored to life and wholeness. In France the story is told of three small children, wandering in their play until lost, lured, and captured by an evil butcher. St. Nicholas appears and appeals to God to return them to life and to their families.
How much of this is truth and how much is fiction? Well, that’s up to debate, but does it really matter? Nicholas was bishop who gave up his money to help the poor, something that each of us can strive to emulate. Although, I’m not sure if any of us have the ability to bring dead pickled boys back to life, but you never know. St. Nicholas’ Day isn’t just about giving, or getting, presents – it’s a glimmer of hope during the season of Advent. As the days grow shorter and the nights grow longer, it gives us a small reminder of the charity and kindness of those who have gone before us, particularly a certain bishop. The presents are certainly nice, of course, and are a little pick me up during the cold winter days. In a way, it reminds us of what we’re waiting for during Advent. While St. Nicholas is the patron saint of children, Jesus certainly has him beat on that.
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. Amen.
Delivered on 5 December 2010 at Christ Church Somerville in Massachusetts