Legacy of St. Nicholas continues today

Kathleen Marsh

Celebrated by Christians worldwide, the Feast of Saint Nicholas is observed annually on Dec. 6. The date was strategically placed on the Church calendar to fall in the season of Advent, a four-week vigil of preparation for the arrival of the Christ child. Did you celebrate St. Nick’s Day this year? If so, I hope it was filled with sweet memories and not just another expensive holiday imposition.

St. Nicholas of Myra became a legend by being a shining example of a wealthy man actually living his Christian values. It seems Nicholas had developed quite a reputation as a gift-giver, but he occasionally outdid even himself. As the story goes, he was approached one day by a father in deep distress. The grief-stricken man explained that since he couldn’t fund his daughters’ dowries, they’d be taken into slavery.

Wisely putting him off, Nicholas said he’d look into the matter, or as we might say, conduct a thorough background investigation. When the father’s story checked out, Nicholas supposedly tossed the money through the family’s window under cover of darkness. It landed in their shoes, drying near the fireplace, and tragedy was averted.

Like me, Nicholas believed in happy endings, continuing his philanthropy until his death in Demre, Turkey, on Dec. 6, 346 A.D. He was entombed there, but in 1087, Italian soldiers transferred his remains to Bari, Italy to be enshrined in the Basilica di San Nicola. As a canonized Roman Catholic Saint, Nicholas became the patron of children, sailors, those with financial problems, and fire victims.

Said to exude the Oil of Saint Nicholas, for almost 1,000 years his tomb has attracted pilgrims who buy small bottles of the oil as relics. Jon and I visited the church in 2001; there really is liquid seeping up near his sarcophagus. Alas, an analysis done in 1925 determined it was water, formed as condensation due to the tomb’s underground location. Nevertheless, I had to fight off a very persistent vendor charging only $20 for a tiny bottle of “genuine St. Nicholas holy oil.”

History records that the origin of contemporary St. Nick tradition dates to the 11th Century when Christian nuns in Belgium and France began giving the poor gifts in his name. The custom spread to Germany and Holland where children still put out a shoe filled with hay and a carrot for his horse. In America, they leave shoes in the foyer or hang a stocking in hopes that while they sleep St. Nicholas will stop by with gifts.

I have always loved St. Nick’s Day. I vividly remember how as kids we eagerly anticipated it. Just fetching our stockings from the attic was exciting. My artsy-crafty Aunt Loraine Brink made one for each of us, beautiful handmade treasures personalized with our names written in embroidery and decorated with yule symbols. We didn’t have a fireplace in the farmhouse so my siblings and I carefully lined up our stockings on the dining room table just before bedtime on Dec. 5.

My schoolmates from more affluent families got presents in their stockings; on the farm we got fruit and candy. Not apples and candy bars, tangerines and hard candy wrapped in cellophane. I’m sure my mother had neither the time nor the money to buy us “real” presents, but that fruit and candy was special because it was purchased in a store, goodies we got only for St. Nick’s. Mom was so smart; she knew that saving something for once a year made it not only a special treat but a valued tradition.

I suppose today’s kids would throw a fit if St. Nick brought only fruit and hard candy. They expect trendy gifts in their Amazon Prime stockings, stuff made in foreign countries by poor children who will never know such luxury. Some kids get more presents on Dec. 6 than I did during my entire childhood. Sadly, that doesn’t seem to make them happy for long. Within a week they’re revising their lengthy Christmas lists for Santa.

No matter. I’m glad that, when my kids were young, I continued my family’s St. Nick ritual. We had so much fun hanging their handmade stockings over the fireplace. They always seemed surprised and delighted to find fruit and candy in them the next morning. Okay, they also got a book or a game, an inexpensive gift left by a St. Nicholas who had a little more disposable income than my folks did.

Happily, the tradition has passed to my daughter who celebrates St. Nick’s the same way with my granddaughter. She’s told me that thanks to a family custom passed down for generations, tangerines and hard candy still make happy memories. How sweet is that?

Kathleen Marsh is a lifelong educator, writer, and community advocate. She has published eight books, four on the history of Townsend, where she and husband Jon are happily retired on the beautiful Townsend Flowage.