{Family and the Christian Year} St. Nicholas Day and New Traditions

{Family and the Christian Year} St. Nicholas Day and New Traditions December 12, 2011
Artist: Elisabeth Jvanovsky

Every once in a while around here I’m going to be discussing the attempts we’re making as a family to engage with the Church calendar. Being no expert in feast days and the like, I’ll be fumbling through this with you.

I told you before how challenged I was by the talk given last month by my friend Christine, whose husband pastors our church, about the ways her family practices traditions throughout the Church year. (I keep thinking that earnestly pursuing prayer incorporated with beautiful symbolism–the lighting of candles, reading of prayers and scripture– is one of the most counter-cultural things we can do as a family. I want my kids to be earnest, not cynical! But that’s probably for another post…)

One the traditions Christine mentioned is her family’s celebration of St. Nicholas Day in early December. St. Nicholas Day is officially on December 6, but her family celebrates on the Friday evening through Saturday afternoon that is closest to that date. In many European countries St. Nicholas Day is a day for giving gifts or waking to filled stockings  (you know, St. Nick and all). It’s also a day where people are encouraged to follow in St. Nicholas’ footsteps and do something to actively care for the poor. (If you don’t know the story of St. Nicholas or where our modern day version of Santa and stockings comes from, refresh yourself here). Christine’s family celebrates by eating a Mediterranean feast on Friday night (St. Nick was from Turkey), waking to stockings on Saturday morning (no stockings for them on Christmas day), and spending that Saturday doing something as a family to care for those in need.

This tradition has stuck with my mind for a number of reasons:

  1. I feel uncomfortable with the emphasis we give to Santa Claus as a culture. Now, I’m not one of those Christians who hates sweet Santa. I think Mr. Claus is wonderful. He’s kind, he’s playful (how silly to fly through the air and squeeze down a chimney!), he loves children, and he gives good gifts. (I’m a lover of myth because I believe all good myths have an element of the truth in them. Or to quote Gertrud Mueller Nelson’s daughter in To Dance with God, myths are “stories who aren’t true on the outside. But they are true on the inside” (77). Much of the stories we pass down as a humanity aim toward our human need for God. We love Santa because he meets a deep need we have for God to be a loving, playful Father, a magical friend who loves us and gathers us into his lap. Because of that, I don’t want Santa out of our family Christmas. I just want him to have his rightful place. Last year, because it was August’s first year to really understand gifts and be excited about them, I think I put too much emphasis on Santa in our home. Because of that, August was constantly thinking about Santa and talking about him to anyone who would listen. This year I want to be more deliberate in how we talk about Santa. Which brings us to point number…
  2. Acknowledging the real St. Nicholas allows us to have a clearer language on Santa Claus. It also allows us to answer the “Is Santa Claus real?” question without feeling like we’re lying or stomping on the magic of Santa. So, we’ve been reading a book on the story of St. Nicholas that is really too old for August. Actually, there’s some stuff in there that’s kind of scary and that I’m not super comfortable with August reading as a 3-year-old (like St. Nicholas being thrown into prison), but it has allowed us a lot of conversations to discuss that Jesus is the reason St. Nicholas first gave gifts. He loved Jesus and realized that because he had all the food and money and stuff he needed while there were so many people who were hungry or homeless or in need of help, God was asking him to help them. It’s also been a chance for us to talk about how Santa gives gifts to children because he loves Jesus, because God gives us all the good things in our lives. This is how Santa celebrates Jesus being born.
  3. Spending a Saturday as a family celebrating St. Nicholas Day in the middle of the craziness of holiday parties and shopping allows us time to stop, reconsider what we have and what we need to give away, and allows a practical moment to practice–as a family–what it means to give. Even though Chris and I tithe and give to organizations throughout the year, our kids aren’t really part of that. We want to give them a tangible experience in caring for those in need. For a three year old, money isn’t tangible, but action is.

So then, this is what we did:

I had plans to make a simple chickpea and flatbread wrap for dinner Friday night to kick off our celebration, but Chris had a work Christmas party he had to be at, so we decided we’d take the pressure off of the feasting element and just dedicate Saturday morning to the St. Nicholas adventure. So Saturday morning, after my husband let me sleep in, I was awakened to August in my bed cheering, “Happy St. Nicholas Day!”

I had already gathered some bags of things to give away. We had stuffed animals that I had put aside in the move, toys in perfectly good shape that August never played with. They’ve been sitting in the garage with some of my and August’s clothes that never got much use. We also had a few things in the pantry that I’d been meaning to donate to the Food Bank. Chris helped August choose some toys to give away from his own closet. The pile was small. Very small. But I was proud anyway. I read a prayer for St. Nicholas day…about following in his footsteps and giving our lives to those in need. Then Chris prayed for the gifts we were giving to be a blessing for the people who need them.

We made plans for four stops.

  • The grocery store where Chris and August picked out cans of soup and non-perishables for the food bank.
  • The Goodwill drop off site where we dropped off some housewares we don’t ever use and some of Chris’ clothes.
  • Then onto my favorite stop. Salvation Army has a Women’s and Children’s shelter in downtown Austin. They were excited to take any used toys (which is a feat in itself! it’s hard to find any charity that wants anything but new toys). And I felt most confident about our clothes being put to the best use there.
  • And last, the food bank, where August got to help carry the cans to the donation drop box.

We came home to for lunch where a present from St. Nicholas was waiting for August: a $3 map of the world. I wanted him to get a gift from St. Nick that reminded him of the people in the world who we get to share our gifts with. So, up goes the map on the wall in his room, where we can mark our Compassion kids’ countries with a heart.

And, my friends, that’s it. We ate lunch and took naps. And that marked our first ever St. Nicholas Day in the Hohorst house. Nothing remarkable but the start of a practical way for our little ones to learn giving: of time, of resources, of heart.

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