By Bishop Paul S. Loverde, Bishop of Arlington
As Christmas draws near, many depictions of Santa Claus are already present in stores and in people’s homes, oftentimes portraying him in a comical or cartoon-like manner. But are you aware that the tradition of Santa Claus has its roots in an actual Catholic saint? Just as Santa Claus is today lauded as a kindly, generous soul, so was St. Nicholas known to be a man of great charity, revered especially as a protector of small children.
St. Nicholas’s feast day in the Church calendar is on Dec. 6. He is the patron saint of many, including bankers, repentant thieves, hospitals and even the country of Russia! His feast day is celebrated in a variety of ways, including placing shoes outside one’s door on the eve of his feast day (to receive candy and small gifts).
Butler’s Lives of the Saints tells us that St. Nicholas was born in the late 200s in Myra, Turkey. He was ordained a priest by his uncle (an archbishop) and then appointed as an abbot of a monastery, and eventually as an archbishop himself. After a life filled with many acts of charity and holiness, Nicholas died in 342. In 1807, his relics were taken to Bari, Italy. Butler’s Lives of the Saints says the bones exude miraculous oil: “after fifteen centuries, ‘the manna of St. Nicholas’ still flows from his bones and heals all kinds of sick.”
In art, Nicholas is sometimes depicted holding three gold balls, or three bags of gold. These depictions are based on one of the many stories of St. Nicholas that has been passed down through the centuries. The story goes that a poor man in a small town was the father of three daughters. In those days, a dowry, or sum of money, was expected to be given to the prospective husband by the woman’s father, but this man had no dowries for his daughters. If a woman’s family had no money for a dowry, her chances of making a financially stable marriage were woeful and could drive her to poverty and even prostitution.
Legend has it that when St. Nicholas heard of this family’s plight, he snuck onto their roof and dropped a small bag of money down the chimney for the oldest daughter’s dowry. The daughter was able to make a good marriage, and was saved from a life of sin. Happy with his success, Nicholas provided the same service for the second daughter, and then the third. It is said that he flung the money down the chimney in the dead of night, and it rolled out the chimney into shoes drying by the fire – thus comes the tradition of placing shoes outside to receive gifts, and also for Christmas stockings hung by the fireplace.
Butler’s Lives of the Saints tells us that the grateful man said, “Nicholas, why dost thou conceal thyself from me? Thou art my helper, and he who has delivered my soul and my daughters’ from hell.”
As we continue through this blessed season of Advent, let us be reminded by the kind and generous spirit of St. Nicholas to help others, simply and quietly and with no thought of repayment. We never know how a simple act of kindness on our part can lead to both the physical and spiritual healing of another person!