I recently read the excellent book My Life With the Saints by James Martin. Martin, a Jesuit priest, writes a series of essays which are part personal memoir and part hagiography of his favorite saints. In the past year I’ve been learning more about holy women and men (who weren’t always so holy, which is the most encouraging thing of all) from Saint of the Day. I’ve decided to steal Rev. Martin’s idea and make regular posts about my favorite saints, both canonized and not, a regular feature of this blog.
Today we begin with one of my all time favorites, St. Nicholas. If fact, I like Nicholas so much I’ve taken his name as my own (well, one of my own names at least). I was almost named for Nicholas at birth in the Irish variation of the name Colin. My mother prepared to negotiate for this name by deciding to mention another name to my father first on the assumption he wouldn’t like it but would agree to the second name my mother mentioned. So my mother suggested “How about Liam?”, my dad said ok and I’ve been Liam ever since. When I received the sacrament of confirmation I rectified this situation by taking Nicholas as a confirmation name.
Now it should be noted that my name of Nicholas has less to do with the saint than it does with my grandfather, Nicholas Brennan. While not someone who would meet the typical definition of a saint, my grandfather is a beloved figure who occupied an important place in my childhood. And that place was usually his big yellow chair where he held court telling stories and bad jokes. He served as a model of hard work, thrift, and humor. He also was curmudgeonly, stingy and bigoted, but the lesson learned here is that while no one is perfect each person can still bear a positive influence on the people they know and love.
Kind of like the saints. My grandfather died when I was young so I never got to know him well personally, but I delight in the stories my mother tells about him. Similarly, while little historical data is known of Nicholas, a 4th century Turkish bishop, we can learn about him and the virtues he represents through story.
The most famous story of Nicholas involves an impoverished man who is unable to provide for his three daughters. In the dark of night Nicholas throws three bags of gold coins through the man’s window that the man can use as dowry for his daughters thus saving them from slavery and prostitution. From this story comes the gift giving tradition of Santa Claus, the legendary character derived from St. Nicholas. In parts of Europe it is still traditional to give gifts today on St. Nicholas Day. My wife spent part of her childhood in Belgium where the tradition is to leave one’s shoe out for St. Nicholas to place gifts in. (More disturbingly she tells me that St. Nicholas is helped by a slave named Black Peter). While the Christmas gifts of today are notoriously weighed down by greed and comercialism, the St. Nicholas story reminds us of giving as charity. That is giving to the poor and giving without expectation of reward.
While preparing for this entry, I read up on Nicholas and learned some interesting facts. I knew Nicholas was a bishop in Turkey (specifically Myra in Lycia), but I didn’t know was that he was selected from among the laity to become bishop despite having no clerical experience (something that just doesn’t these days, does it?). In his role as Bishop of Myra he attended the First Council of Nicea. Imagine Santa Claus playing part in drafting the great statement of Christian belief, the Nicene Creed! While it may be hard to reconcile Nicholas the man with the Santa Claus the legend, I find it interesting that Nicea was an ecumenical council and Santa Claus is beloved by Christians everywhere (and then some). So in a sense they are both serve as symbols of Christian unity.
Devotion to Nicholas runs strong on the world wide web. Both the St. Nicholas Center and the St. Nicholas Society provide a wealth of information regarding the historical St. Nicholas, Santa Claus, and celebrating the Feast of St. Nicholas. There is simpler biographical information at Saint of the Day and Catholic Online. These resources will help you learn far more about St. Nicholas than I can relate here.
Happy St. Nicholas Day!