Honoring St. Nicholas, a saint for Advent, and all seasons

Managing Editor

On the eve of Dec. 6, many children around the Diocese of Springfield in Illinois —  in fact, youngsters all over the world — put out shoes to recognize St. Nicholas, also known as Nokolaos of Myra. Indeed, it is the true story of St. Nicholas which became, many years later, the Christmas legend known as Santa Claus.

Born in the later part of the third century in Patara, in a village which is now Turkey, St. Nicholas was the only child of well-off Christian parents.  Well taken care of by his parents, Nicholas was a bright youngster who had a real thirst for his religion. Sadly, his parents both died during an epidemic. After their deaths, he inherited his parent’s wealth, and was then raised by his uncle, the Bishop of Patara, who later ordained Nicholas a priest. Eventually, St. Nicholas was named Bishop of Myra.

During St. Nicholas’ time, the Roman Emperor persecuted Christians and so the sainted man suffered for his faith and was imprisoned.  It is said that during this period the prisons were so full of bishops, priests, and deacons, that there was no room for real criminals like murderers and thieves. After his release, St. Nicholas attended the Council of Nicaea in 325.  He died on Dec. 6, 343 — thus that is his feast day — and was buried in his cathedral.  

Nicholas used his entire inheritance to assist the needy, the sick, and the suffering. He dedicated his life to the service of God, and became known for his generosity, his concern for sailors and their ships, and his love for children.

One famous story tells of a poor man with three daughters. In those days, a young woman’s father had to offer prospective husbands something of value, which was called a dowry. The larger the dowry, the better the chance that a woman would find a good husband — and without a dowry a woman was not likely to marry. The poor man’s daughters were probably going to be sold into slavery.  

Mysteriously, on three consecutive nights, a bag of gold appeared at the man’s home, providing the dowries. The bags of gold, tossed through an open window by St. Nicholas, are said to have landed in stockings and shoes left before the fire to dry.

Since St. Nicholas Day falls early in Advent, it is an appropriate time to remember a man who gave all he had to follow the directive given by Jesus to “sell your possessions and give them to the poor.”  One of oldest Christian traditions surrounding his feast day is to leave shoes out overnight in front of the fireplace, on the windowsill, or outside a bedroom door, so St. Nicholas can fill them with special fruits, candies, and other small gifts.

The tradition of receiving gifts actually began with Dutch children and was brought to America in the 1700s. Children sometimes leave carrots in their shoe for St. Nicholas to feed the horse he rides — which would be the predecessor of the reindeer who pull Santa’s sleigh. Some frequently received gifts include oranges or tangerines, which represent the gold balls St. Nicholas gave to the needy. Gold coins, often chocolate wrapped in gold foil, symbolize coins the generous man gave away. Candy canes (or candy croziers) are shaped after a bishop’s staff, so they are a frequent surprise, as well.

So, this St. Nicholas Eve, as children put out their shoes, they can remember that the spirit of St. Nicholas Eve (and Day) should be focused on giving over receiving, remembering those who are less fortunate, and recalling that above all, St. Nicholas cared for the poor and truly loved children.

Father Chris House, pastor of Christ the King Parish in Springfield, said St. Nicholas is one of his favorite saints. “I think it originally comes from the tradition our family had when I was a child,” said Father House, who is also a member of the College of Consultors and a vicar judicial in the Office of the Tribunal.  “When I was growing up, we put out our shoes on the fifth of December.

“But it is more than that.  We connect him with Christmas, but he’s so much more than that. He’s a model of charity,” Father House said. “There are so many stories — we don’t know if they are true or not — but they remind us of his goodness for all seasons, not just when we talk about him at Christmas. He’s known not only for his holiness, but for his true love and charity of people. So, especially in this day and age, we need St. Nicholas’ example more than ever.”

Who knew?

Did you know that St. Nicholas is also connected to the symbolism of a pawn shop? Father Chris House explains that the three balls suspended from a bar — traditionally used on the outside of pawn shops — represent the story of St. Nicholas giving a bag of gold for each the poor man’s daughters to allow them the financial means to be married.

“So besides children, St. Nicholas is also the patron saint of pawn brokers, unwed women, and sailors (because he is said to have calmed the sea during a storm),” Father House said.