What the Real St. Nicholas Teaches Us About Gift Giving

When I picked up Adam C. English’s new book, The Saint Who Would be Santa Claus: The True Life and Trials of Nicholas of Myra, I hoped for insights into how a fourth century bishop in what is now Turkey became our generous, child-loving symbol of Christmas giving. To an extent, I was disappointed. St. Nicholas of Myra left no letters or other written material, so what is known about him comes from a patchwork of other historical sources, some of them inaccurate, conflating the life of this St. Nicholas with another St. Nicholas who lived two centuries later, and others bordering on fairy tale. Furthermore, most of what Adam English tells us about St. Nicholas has no obvious connection to our Santa Claus. I was hoping to collect some heartwarming stories about St. Nick’s love for and generosity to children that I could share with my own kids, as a way of linking our Christian holiday celebrations with secular and commercial traditions. But it turns out that St. Nicholas of Myra was associated more with seafaring and money lending than with children.

So, short of portraying Santa Claus delivering gifts on water skis pulled by eight tiny porpoises, or buying all of our gifts at the neighborhood pawn shop, how can we allow the original St. Nicholas to inform our modern-day merrymaking?

Consider one of the two stories most often told about St. Nicholas of Myra: A man living in extreme poverty decided he had no choice but to sell his three daughters into prostitution. He understood that by doing so, not only was he dooming his daughters, he was also effectively abandoning his faith in God. (English points out that selling one’s children was, unfortunately, not unheard of in the ancient world.) St. Nicholas, moved by the family’s plight, threw a bag of gold coins into the family’s home in the middle of the night. When the father woke in the morning to find the coins—enough to provide a dowry for one of his daughters so he could marry her off rather than selling her off—he praised God in his joy and gratitude. Moved by the father’s transformation, Nicholas threw another bag of gold into the family’s home the next night, providing enough for the second daughter’s dowry. Glorifying God, the father once again responded in gratitude, daring to hope that a third gift would allow his third daughter to marry. Sure enough, when once again a bag of gold was thrown into his window in the middle of the night, the father rushed outside to find that Nicholas was his benefactor. With tears of thanksgiving, the father said to Nicholas, “If it were not for your goodness, which was stirred up by our Lord Jesus Christ, I would have long since consigned my life to ruin and shame.”

In this story, we see some obvious connections between St. Nicholas and Santa Claus, as they both give gifts surreptitiously in the dark of night. In some versions of the story, the gold coins landed in the daughters’ stockings, which were hanging by the fire to dry. Beyond seeing some faint echoes of Santa Claus in this ancient story, I see several lessons that we might apply to our own gift giving this Christmas.

The gift was focused on the recipient’s needs, not the giver’s. English points out that in this story, “Nicholas demonstrated the value of intentional, targeted giving; that is, giving in order to meet specific needs as opposed to giving randomly for the sake of generosity or for ridding oneself of possessions.” I am always disheartened by Christmas store displays or catalog pages labeled simply “Gifts.” Items given this generic label tend to be  generic things: candles, picture frames, electric shavers, perfume, fancy chocolates. There is, of course, nothing wrong with giving someone a candle or electric shaver if they will truly enjoy and use such items. But so much of our gift giving, at Christmas and at other times of year (such as the inevitable search for the perfect teacher gift in June) stems from a sense of obligation, a desire to be recognized as generous, the need to meet social expectations, or the desire to get “buy gifts” checked off on our overlong to-do lists, rather than from a desire to give the recipient something he or she really needs. For those on our gift lists whose basic needs are already generously met, we might at least choose gifts they will really use or appreciate. Choosing three or four special gifts for our kids that reflect their passions and personalities takes much more time and effort than trolling the aisles of Target, picking up whatever catches my eye and hoping that a huge pile of gifts under the tree will guarantee that a few hit the mark. Joining forces with other families to buy teachers gifts that they might actually use takes more time and effort than adding to their vast and useless collections of “World’s Best Teacher” mugs. But though it requires some extra attention, our gift-giving ought to be focused, as St. Nicholas’s was, on the recipients rather than our own needs and vision—and that includes honoring the wishes of those who ask that we not buy them a gift.

The gift was given anonymously. While the father eventually figured out that Nicholas was his benefactor, the saint initially honored the Biblical injunction that “when you give to the needy, do not announce it with trumpets, as the hypocrites do in the synagogues and on the streets, to be honored by men” (Matthew 6:5). Giving children gifts marked “From Santa” may be our first or only experience of giving without expecting anything in return. When we give in Santa’s name, we get no thank you note, no boisterous exclamation that, “You’re the best mom ever!” Instead, we get the satisfaction of seeing our gift being received with joy. Or, we may see our gift set aside or ignored by an overwhelmed, worn out child. Giving anonymously forces us to ask why we give in the first place: To feel good about ourselves? To get recognition and thanks? Out of obligation? To get a particular response from the recipient? Out of gratitude for all we have? Because it feels good to meet another’s need? Because God asks us to?

A gift of “ordinary goodness” led to extraordinary transformation. Unlike stories about other saints popular in early Christianity, this story about St. Nicholas involves neither miracles nor extreme (and extremely painful) acts of asceticism or martyrdom. As English describes,

“Here was a young man—not even a bishop [yet] and certainly not an ascetic monk nor a trained theologian—performing a seemingly random act of kindness on behalf of three poor girls…The girls were not daughters of the emperor or some other celebrity; they were like anyone else caught in the trap of poverty and hunger, a trap that ensnared millions of faceless and nameless individuals in the ancient world. Their choices were enslavement, forced prostitution, homelessness, starvation. And Nicholas saved them.”

Most of us who choose to follow Christ will not become saints. We will not become famous for our work with the poor or for founding a vibrant new church or for writing a best-selling book that will lead millions of readers to deepen their faith. Most of us will exercise our faith through daily acts of “ordinary goodness” that meet the often mundane needs of others, whether by tending to children day after day, bringing a sandwich to the homeless man at our bus stop, or listening to an elderly relative tell the same stories over and over. The story of St. Nicholas and the three daughters illustrates how acts of ordinary goodness can lead to extraordinary transformation. Not only were the daughters saved from desperate lives of want and degradation, but the father who had abandoned God in his desperation ended up with his faith rekindled through Nicholas’s generosity.

I hope that receiving gifts that I have carefully chosen to match their personalities and passions helps my children know that they are loved for exactly who they are, and empowers them to both explore those passions and love others for who they are. I hope that giving gifts in Santa’s name reinforces for us the Biblical notion that giving is best done anonymously. I hope that by modeling St. Nicholas’s ordinary goodness, we might help bring about extraordinary transformation in our lives and the lives of those to whom we give gifts of all kinds this Christmas.

I wrote this post for a Patheos Book Club Roundtable, where you can read other bloggers’ reviews of this book.

About Ellen Painter Dollar

Ellen Painter Dollar is a writer focusing on faith, parenting, family, disability, and ethics. She is the author of No Easy Choice: A Story of Disability, Faith, and Parenthood in an Age of Advanced Reproduction (Westminster John Knox, 2012). Visit her web site at http://ellenpainterdollar.com for more on her writing and speaking, and to sign up for a (very) occasional email newsletter.

  • http://timfall.wordpress.com/ Tim

    It seems to me that meeting “the often mundane needs of others” without concern for whether it will lead to fame or gratitude as Jesus taught in Matthew 6 is the mark of a saint, Ellen, the mark of one sanctified by Christ to do the work of God’s kingdom by the power of the Spirit.

    Tim

    P.S. You made me laugh with this line: “So, short of portraying Santa Claus delivering gifts on water skis pulled by eight tiny porpoises, or buying all of our gifts at the neighborhood pawn shop, how can we allow the original St. Nicholas to inform our modern-day merrymaking?” Now I want to go to a pawn shop and see if I can find a figurine of Santa and those 8 porpoises.

    • DaveP

      > You made me laugh with this line …

      Me too.

      > Now I want to go to a pawn shop and see …

      … the gifts I gave my relatives last year, then buy them back and give them again. :)

      • http://timfall.wordpress.com/ Tim

        You give the word “re-gifting” a whole new meaning, Dave!

  • Jeannie

    I like the part about focusing on the recipient’s needs, not the giver’s. Recently I read a magazine article in which a self-appointed efficiency guru was giving tips to moms on how to save time. One was to buy multiples of the same toy so when your child is invited to birthday parties, you don’t have to shop for that child specifically but can just take a [Transformer, My Little Pony, whatever] from the pile, wrap it, and you’re done. This really seemed wrong to me. For one thing, my kids were/are almost never invited to birthday parties, so going out to buy so-&-so just the right gift was an exciting adventure when it happened! But in general it just seems like such a joy-sucker: the gift becomes a functional widget rather than a way of giving delight to another person.

    • http://www.ellenpainterdollar.com Ellen Painter Dollar

      I agree that children’s birthday parties in general have evolved to where the gift giving is (in my opinion) done poorly. Not only do I think it’s nice to allow a child pick a gift geared to a particular friend’s interests, but I also don’t like the practice of the birthday child not opening gifts at the party. It makes the gift seem like an entrance ticket or something, and my kids are always disappointed that they can’t see their friend open their specially chosen gift.

      I have occasionally stockpiled birthday gifts in my basement when I see good gifts on sale, but I then allow my kids to “shop” from my stockpile to pick a gift that will be just right for their friend. And if I don’t have a just right gift in my stockpile, then we go on a shopping expedition.

  • http://Google Frank Dunlap

    Christmas has become too commeralized. It causes many people to use their credit cards almost to the limit. They spend the next year paying for these, mostly useless items, and having regret that they spent so much.

  • http://www.kradelkids.blogspot.com Melissa

    Hi Ellen,

    I am an Episcopal priest who is interested in living our faith in the home as well. I wrote this piece about St. Nicholas. http://kradelkids.blogspot.com/2011/12/bring-back-old-st-nick.html It will be interesting to see how this year goes, but we just got out our Advent wreath and all of our children’s books on Christmas and Advent. Advent 1 is the wreath. Advent 2 is decorating the outside. Advent 3 is decorating the inside and Advent 4 is the tree. Have a blessed Advent with your family.

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