When I was in kindergarten my dad took a new call (as pastor of a congregation) and our family moved to Milwaukee. Milwaukee was incredibly different than the rural North Dakota and Iowa towns I had lived in previously. There was so much more going on all the time and lots of new customs and traditions that I had never encountered before.
At the beginning of December, I was introduced to one of those new traditions, St. Nicholas Day. On the evening of Dec. 5 we left our shoes outside our bedroom doors and in the morning discovered that St. Nick had visited and left us small presents in our shoes. I still remember the Matchbox space shuttle I found in my shoes, and I quickly decided this was a great new tradition. I wasn’t exactly sure who St. Nick was, he seemed like a lesser Santa Claus in my mind, but I was excited that he was now a part of my life.
As I got older I learned more about the legend of St. Nick. I discovered that this tradition was important to German Lutherans in particular, of which there are many in Milwaukee. I also discovered that he was actually a fourth-century Greek bishop known for secret gift-giving, particularly to the poor.
St. Nick is also one of the sources for the modern-day legend of Santa Claus. A legend that has grown to such dimensions in our commercialized culture that we often forget that Santa, like St. Nick, was originally thought to be a generous person who gave to the less fortunate as an expression of his faith. Sadly this part of the story is often overlooked in the massive retail bonanza that Christmas has become. If anything, Santa seems to overshadow the Christ Child and the homespun cast of characters in attendance at his birth.
When my kids were born, my wife and I really struggled with the whole Santa tradition because we knew how distorted and commercialized it had become. Ultimately we decided that no matter how much we wanted to not participate in the secular Santa narrative it was an almost impossible task.
But the beautiful thing about the legends of St. Nick and Santa Claus is the truly countercultural and faithful nature of the stories. Although as parents we have to dig deeply to get beneath the commercialized images of gift-giving, at its heart these are stories that we can celebrate. We’ve been able to do that with our kids not by shielding them from Santa and St. Nick but rather by telling their stories.
Through the ELCA Good Gifts catalog we’ve also made participating in giving to the poor in the tradition of St. Nick and Santa Claus a part of our Christmas practice.
So this Christmas I hope that you are able to share the truly countercultural elements of these stories.