It’s Christmastime! To start off the first week of Advent, let’s talk Santa. Before pictures of the jolly, old elf with the red suit jump to mind, I’d like to take us back a few centuries. First, however, here’s a little background on Advent, which will inform our topics the next several weeks.
Advent itself is a religious concept meaning the preparations Christians make in order to prepare for their celebration of the birth of Jesus.
In one type of Advent celebration, five candles are lit over the course of several weeks, beginning four Sundays before Christmas. The fifth candle is then lit on Christmas Eve. Each candle represents a different concept.
Other expressions of Advent include the Eastern Church’s celebration. It lasts forty days to mirror the forty days of Lent, which lead up to Easter. There are also the daily Advent calendars, often include candy being found behind each door opened, beginning December first.
We’ll take the first version to use as our window through which we’ll look at the next several weeks. The names of the candles can vary depending on church or denomination, but I’ve tried to stay as simple as possible. Therefore, today we’ll examine Hope. But first, back to St. Nick.
Saint Nicholas Day is celebrated on December 6th every year. This feast day is in honor of Nicholas of Myra, a 3rd century Turkish bishop who has become the patron saint of children (among others). The tradition developed that he would wear his red bishop’s clothes and distribute gifts to good children. In fact, one of the original stories has him gifting gold coins to three dowry-less girls, leaving the gift in their shoes.
With stories like that, it’s easy to see how the real life Nicholas of Myra evolved into a legend until he became known as St. Nick. Or Sinterklass. Or Santa Claus. St. Nicholas’ story traveled through Europe, taking on a life of its own as it was combined with other local religions, myths, and magical figures. For example, the Roman Saturn or the Norse Odin “appeared as white-bearded men with magical powers like flight…and ensured that kids toed the line by saying their prayers and practicing good behavior.” Yet, despite the various incarnations, the red clothes, the giving of gifts, and the care for (good) children seemed to stay.
When the Protestant Reformation swept through Germany and beyond, the traditions of St. Nicholas were debated among those who left the Catholic Church. To help replace the concept of a gift giving patron saint, Martin Luther promoted the idea of der Heilige Christ, otherwise known as das Christkindl or an angle-like Christ Child. The concept took wings over the years and became Father Christmas. Or Père Noël. And Christkindl morphed into the anglicized Kris Kringle.
In the United States, it was Sinterklass who morphed into Santa, especially after John Pintard, Washington Irving, and Clement Clark Moore helped propel a visual throughout the country. Moore did so more unintentionally since he first created his poem Twas the Night Before Christmas for his children. Thomas Nast took Moore’s description and turned it into a cartoon for Harper’s Weekly. From there, St. Nick flew into the marketplace as the icon of giving (and, unfortunately, buying).
So what does St. Nick, hope, and self-care through creativity all have in common? Backing up to before Santa became a commercial commodity, he epitomized gift giving. More specifically, giving to children in need. Take the story of his leaving gold in the shoes of the dowry-less girls. In a time when these young women would have remained unmarried without the financial resources of a dowry, they would have been left destitute. St. Nicholas’ gift gave them hope for a future.
In today’s commercial age, it’s easy to equate gift giving with asking for things we want. But if we’re going to embrace hope and cling to the self-care we need when the holiday season makes us weary, I think remembering the older legends of St. Nicholas gives us a rock to lean on. Giving, especially to those in need, has the ability to fill us with Christmas Spirit even as it spreads hope to those around us.
As nice as it is to say, philosophy must become action, so what are some tangible ways to embrace this type of hope-filled giving? If you have children in your life, either as a parent, a grandparent, an aunt or uncle (whether biologically or by choice), teaching them about giving is a great way to learn it yourself. Something simple could be telling a few of the legends of St. Nicholas, such as the dowry story. Story is a powerful way to teach children. As a visual, children could leave out a shoe the night of December 5th and you can fill it with an orange (the historic symbol for the bag of gold left in the young women’s’ shoes), then talk about the story the following morning.
Another idea, one our family is doing this year, is a play off the 25-day Advent calendar. Instead of opening a door to find a piece of chocolate, we’ll set aside a non-perishable item to give to the food pantry come Christmas Eve. I cannot take credit for this idea, but we found it so great, we had to make it our own.
Since we have a two-year-old, my husband and I shopped for the items last week, then I took a picture of each item and had them printed. On December 1st, our son opened a pouch with a number 1 and matched the picture with a non-perishable, putting the item in a wrapped box. Come Christmas, we can give the box to our local food bank or food pantry.
If doing something for the entire month is too overwhelming, then St. Nicholas Day offers the perfect date to use for a one-time giving event such as donating clothes or toys. If cost-savings is a necessity, you could create cards or draw pictures to give to shut-ins or those living in an assisted living community. Or you could volunteer your time at a homeless shelter.
If these or another idea catches your attention but Advent or December has already begun, don’t feel like you have to wait until next year. Jump in mid-month. If St. Nicholas Day has come and gone, pick another day to spread hope to those in need. As Maya Angelou said, “I have found that among its other benefits, giving liberates the soul of the giver.”
So, as in the legend of St. Nick, may this holiday season begin by filling your spirit with the freedom of giving, that you may spread hope to those around you and may that carry you through the busyness that comes throughout the month of December.
Happy St. Nicholas Day!