We are nearing the Christmas holiday season, and all the decorations are being put out for Saint Nick. Houses and malls alike are getting a covering of lights with highlights of green and red. Children will soon look to the sky, a-waiting the jingling of bells and the sound of hooves on the rooftop. But have you ever wondered who Saint Nicholas was and why we hang stockings out at Christmas?
Saint Nicholas was actually a real person. He was called Nikolaos, and he was the Greek Bishop of Myra, in present day Turkey. He lived in the late 3rd and early 4th centuries AD, and he was the only son of wealthy but devout Christian parents, named Epiphanius and Johanna. They died in a plague and he was raised by his uncle, also called Nikolaos, who was bishop of Patara and brought him up in Christian teachings. Many older traditions, such as the Catholic and Orthodox traditions, give his feast day as the 6th of December, the recorded day of his death. The Dutch call him “Sinterklaas”, wherefrom we get the modern day “Santa Claus”.
In many European countries, this day is the traditional gift-giving day. In Belgium and Germany, for example, children will put their boots out by the chimney, with small donations to him or his horse. In return, if they have been good, they will receive small gifts or sweets in their shoes. If they have been naughty, they will get a tree branch (switch) or lumps of coal. In countries as far away as Lebanon, this day is observed as one of gift giving for children.
As the old poem from Clement Clarke Moore (1822) goes, "The stockings were hung by the chimney with care, in hopes that St. Nicholas soon would be there." But where does the tradition of stocking-filling come from? Probably the best explanation comes from a story of need. It says that young Nikolaos, obeying his teachings to “sell what you have and give the money to the poor”, used his whole inheritance to aid the suffering, sick and poor.
One day, he heard of a local townsman or merchant who had three young daughters. In those days, one married at about 14 or 15 years of age. Times were hard and the man had fallen on bad luck. Back then, it was necessary for the father to give a dowry, or payment in money or goods, to the prospective husband before marriage. The more expensive the dowry, the better the chance one had of finding a good husband for one’s daughters. However, in his poverty, the man had no dowry to give, not for three young daughters. Hence, they were destined to lives in slavery or prostitution, a very common practice at the time. Of course, the father could not abide this, but it was his fate.
Young Nicholas, hearing this bad news, determined to help. Yet, he knew the father was a prideful man and would take no payment nor aid of any kind, instead resigning himself to his misery. He would have to lose his daughters to the wickedness of the world.
The story goes that after hand-washing their clothes, the girls had hung them out to dry. In the dark of the night, Nicholas took handfuls of gold coins and put them in each of their six stockings. On the morrow, the girls found the gifts the stranger had left, were able to buy their way out of slavery and find good husbands, and thus lived happily ever after.
For this reason, Saint Nicholas of Myra, the real man behind our Santa Claus, is regarded as the patron saint of children. We celebrate his good deeds and love every December, as the wise men gave to the Christ child.