Celebrating the Secret Giver

Happy Santa Claus Day! Didn’t you know? Really? Sorry about that. I thought everyone knew about Santa Claus Day. My bad. Yes, good, friends, today is really Santa Claus Day. Well, actually, it’s called the Feast of St. Nicholas and is celebrated every December 6th around the world in churches that celebrate such events. This day was one of the original dates of Christmas in the early/medieval church, a day in which charitable gifts were given to the poor and, in later years, presents were exchanged among family members. This day is “gift-giving day.” Didn’t get me something? Well, that’s all right. I figured you wouldn’t. So I gave something to myself in your name. See? All’s well.

In all seriousness, December 6th is the day that Nicholas, longtime and legendary bishop of Myra, Asia Minor (Turkey) died. His followers were so impacted by his life and his testimony that very soon after his death December 6th became a default day for charitable giving. Why charitable giving? Well, that’s part of St. Nick’s story. A man who lived from about AD 280 to 360 or so, Nicholas was a fairly humble leader of the church in Myra even though he came from a wealthy family. He had one particular habit that added to his legend: he would give anonymous gifts to the poor and needy. We’re not talking wooden trains and baby dolls here made by petite elves. We’re talking sacks of gold and bushels of food.

When he was a young man, he would give gifts under the cover of night. The people of Myra had no idea who was blessing the needy until, as legend goes, he was caught by a needy father escaping the scene after giving a gift. Once he was caught, the father told all the townspeople (Facebook, anyone?) about the bishop’s generosity and the folks started putting two and two together. Pretty soon, Nicholas was connected to many acts of charity. He kept giving all his life and died a deeply respected man and Saint of God.

This is the true Santa Claus/Sinter Klaus/Father Christmas. And today is his day.

Here’s perhaps the most interesting thing about his story. After his death, the townspeople decided to continue giving gifts to the poor ā€” in the name of Nicholas ā€” for centuries. Gifts became attached to the saint and, in modern times, the legends grew surrounding the man. In 1823 flying reindeer and chimney escapades were attached to St. Nick. In the mid-1800’s, artists gave him a red coat and furry red hat. The character has exploded since then.

I mentioned the year 1823 because that was when the poem “The Night Before Christmas” was first published. It was a work of fancy that caught fire in the minds of Americans and St. Nicholas took on mythological proportions. Two years ago I had my good friend George lend his golden voice to the poem and last winter I put his reading to music and video. In honor of St. Nick, here it is: