Michelle Martin

Jolly Old St. Nick

Sunday, December 18, 2011

So what are we to make of St. Nicholas? The fourth-century bishop of Myra probably looked nothing like the cherubic fellow in red depicted on the foil wrappings of the chocolates my kids — and my husband — discovered in their shoes on the morning of Dec. 6.

He is the patron of seafarers, scholars, bankers, pawnbrokers, jurists, brewers, coopers, travelers, perfumers, unmarried girls, brides, robbers and children. I’m not sure how all those fit together. I’m not sure they should go together; I for one definitely don’t want my kids associating with robbers, and I’m not too sure about pawnbrokers, either.

But his patronage is likely the reason that the symbol for pawnbrokers is three gold balls. That’s also the symbol for St. Nick.

As legend would have it, the future bishop was a welloff young man when he threw bags of gold coins through the bedroom window of the daughters of a man who could not afford dowries for them. The gifts — once again, according to legend — were found in the girls’ stockings, which had been hung on the bedpost to dry. They provided enough money for each daughter to make a respectable marriage.

While most of what is told about him is legend, this much is fact: he was bishop if Myra in Lycia, Asia Minor, in the fourth century, and devotion to him started in the eastern church and made its way to western churches in the 11th century.

I’m not sure how to explain to young children how the story of Santa Claus relates to pre-medieval marriage economics, so I think I’ll stick with a simpler lesson: Santa Claus is all about generosity. Santa Claus gives to everyone, and expects nothing in return. Sure, the songs talk about him knowing if you’ve been naughty or nice, but has any of us ever met a child whose family welcomes Santa Claus into their lives who has gotten nothing for Christmas?

And Santa Claus, the jolly old elf, is joyful in his giving. He doesn’t grudge the boys and girls their presents; if anything, he seems just as happy to give as they are to receive. Maybe that’s why so many people enjoy playing Santa Claus at Christmas time, buying gifts for people who need them, whether they know those people or not.

That’s how my children really learned about Santa Claus, I think. Starting when they were young — maybe a bit older than Teresa is now — they shopped with me for gifts for children who needed them, whether as part of Catholic Charities Celebration of Giving, a school-sponsored effort or a shopping center Giving Tree. I asked them to help choose the gifts they thought the child would like.

If they asked why Santa needed help to provide presents for some children, I told them to look around: at Christmas, Santa needs all the help he can get.

Teresa is just starting to put a name to the rotund fellow in the red suit whose image is suddenly appearing everywhere, and I tell her that he will bring her a toy on Christmas, but I think that’s still a little abstract for her. She’s much better at understanding what’s happening in the present than what will happen in the future.

But I look forward to when she does look forward to Christmas and the gifts it brings, especially the gift of the Christ child.