st. nick

Continuing Christmas commentary, from five years ago (and I still think it is important):

The inspiration for Christmas gift-giving (and for Santa Claus) is St. Nicolas of Myra. Not a whole lot is known about him, but this story seems to be the reason for his reputation:

A poor man had three daughters but could not afford a proper dowry for them. This meant that they would remain unmarried and probably, in absence of any other possible employment, would have to become prostitutes. Hearing of their plight, Nicholas decided to help them but being too modest (or too shy) to help publicly, he went to their house under the cover of night and threw three purses filled with gold coins through the window. One version of the story has him throwing one purse for three consecutive nights. Another has him throw the purses over a period of three years, each time the night before one of the daughters comes "of age." Invariably the third time the father lies in wait, trying to discover their benefactor. In one version the father confronts the saint, only to have Nicholas say it is not him he should thank but God alone. In another version, Nicholas learns of the poor man's plan and drops the third bag down the chimney instead.

People soon began to suspect that Nicolas was behind a large number of other anonymous gifts to the poor, using the inheritance from his wealthy parents. After he died, people in the region continued to give to the poor anonymously, and such gifts were still often attributed to St. Nicholas.

A pretty inspiring example. But right away I notice that his giving was very different from our Christmas gift exchanges. Take each point I mentioned yesterday: Nicolas gives without expecting anything back; he gives to someone who most likely can't pay him back (as Jesus taught us). Nicolas gives quietly, anonymously, avoiding praise. And he didn't give for the sake of a holiday; he gave because he saw someone in need right then, and he responded to that need. That's real gift-giving. So very different from our Christmas distortion.

Where I'm living right now, in a Christian intentional community, Christmas gift-giving has been moved to Epiphany, or "Three Kings Day." To try to connect the traditional gifts with the wise men's gifts, something more meaningful than Santa. But the distortions of gift-giving are pretty much the same (a public, seasonal exchange, among people who don't really need anything).

And what of the wise men? Again, their gift-giving is very different. They give to someone in need, a poor family from Nazareth, who cannot repay. And it wasn't any holiday. They gave when God moved them to give. We made a holiday of it because their giving was truly beautiful.

But why don't we follow their example?