This article by Ray Spitzenberger first appeared in IMAGES for December 5, 2019, East Bernard Express, East Bernard, Texas.
You should be getting and reading this week’s East Bernard Express on December 5, 2019, the Eve of the Feast of St. Nicholas (according to Lutheran and Catholic liturgical calendars, and according to Catholic tradition in East Bernard). That fact suggested to me to write my column about one of my favorite Saints, whose name obviously gave us the sobriquet, “Santa Claus.”
Not all folks from all religions or ethnicities celebrate St. Nicholas Day, but those who have Slavic and/or Teutonic ancestors generally do. It is widely celebrated in Russia, Poland, the Czech Republic, parts of Germany, and in a different way, in Mexico. Kids from the Slavic countries are doubly blessed with gifts on St. Nicholas Day and on Christmas Day. In East Bernard, and elsewhere in America where traditions were brought from the Old Country, children also receive gifts on St. Nicholas Day and on Christmas Day.
As the Patron Saint of Russia, special traditions and celebrations of the Festival are enthusiastically observed by Russian Orthodox Christians. St. Nicholas is called “Svyatoy Nikolay” by Russians, “Mikulas” by Czechs, “Mikolajki” by Poles, “Swjaty Miklaws” by Wends, “der Heilige Nikolaus” by Germans, and “St. Nicolas de Bari” by Mexicans.
Yes, St. Nicholas was a real Saint, not merely a legend. He was a Bishop who lived in Myra, in Asia Minor (modern day Turkey) and was considered Protector of Children and Sailors, and later, Patron Saint of Russia. He died on December 6, 343 A.D., in Myra, though his remains were eventually buried in Bari, Italy. He inherited a huge fortune when his wealthy parents died; and when he became a clergyman, he gave all his money to the poor so he could humbly serve God. He was very benevolent to all needy people, and especially to children. Serving as a Bishop in the Church, he would have worn red vestments and on special occasions carried a crosier (Bishop’s staff), which is why he is often depicted clad in red and holding a crosier. There are many more details about the life of St. Nicholas, but they tend to be legend rather than fact.
Because of his love and compassion for children, traditions of gift-receiving on his Day developed among Catholics. In Poland, children receive gifts from St. Nicholas in their slippers on his Feast Day, and in Germany, children put out their shoes on the Eve of St. Nicholas to receive gifts in them. In the Czech Republic, three adults dress up like the devil, an angel, and St. Nicholas, and they go about the town, asking about each child, whether they have been good or bad, — only the “good” ones receiving gifts.
In many parts of Mexico, The Feast of St. Nicholas is celebrated on three Mondays in December, with numerous Masses being held on those three Mondays. I don’t think Mexican children, however, have the tradition of the Saint bringing them gifts on December 6; instead, on Christmas Eve, “Papa Noel,” or the Baby Jesus, bring gifts to their homes.
Because of his generosity to all, his compassionate caring, and his love for children, many, many legends grew out of the true stories told about this extraordinary Bishop who gave so much in so many ways to so many people. Nicholas served during the reign of the Roman Emperor, Diocletian, a time of severe persecution against Christians, and it was also a time of widespread poverty, as well as sickness and death caused by the Plague. As a Servant of the Word, his compassion and benevolence during such difficult times brought hope and joy to many, as he exemplified the Spirit of Christ, and thus the Spirit of Christmas.
Ray Spitzenberger is a retired teacher and pastor, and author of a book, It Must Be the Noodles.