Happy St. Nicholas Day! Today, December 6, 2013, is the feast day of Nicholas of Myra. St. Nicholas is almost as old as Christmas itself. He was born on March 15, 270 in Pamphylia, Asia Minor (part of present day Turkey). Nicholas has been universally recognized as a Christian saint since early Christianity. Titles and honors given to him include Defender of Orthodoxy, Holy Hierarch, Bishop of Myra, and Nicholas the Wonder Worker. He is called "Wonder Worker” because he lived a life of great charity, and many miracles recorded after his death reflect that. He is the patron saint of children, mariners, pawnbrokers, merchants, bakers, and travelers. But most of all, yes Catholics, he is also Santa Claus. After all, “Santa Claus” is the American spelling and pronunciation of the dutch term Sinterklaas, which means “Saint Nicholas”.
Unfortunately for many American Catholics, St. Nicholas Day is no longer observed much in the United States, despite being a universal feast day on the Catholic liturgical calender. Regions of the United States that have events to mark St. Nicholas Day tend to be cities with strong German, Polish, Belgian and Dutch influences like Milwaukee, Cincinnati and St. Louis. One of the most common customs associated with St. Nicholas Day is children putting their shoes outside their bedroom doors on the evening of December 5th. St. Nicholas then comes during the night, and children awake on the morning of December 6th to find their shoes filled with gifts and sugary treats. This tradition has continued in the United States, but most observe it on Christmas Eve, and today it is usually involves placing stockings over a fireplace mantel.
When Dutch settlers came to America and established the colony of New Amsterdam, they brought with them the tradition of observing a "visit from St. Nicholas" on December 6. Some English colonists found this distasteful, seeing it as an ancient Catholic custom that had no place in American society after the Protestant Reformation. The English settlers were willing to comply with the custom of filling stockings with gifts, but using the figure a Catholic Saint and bishop was not acceptable in their eyes – especially since many New York colonists were Presbyterians, and did not believe in the custom of bishops. As such, many of the St. Nicholas displays in the United States became radically altered to resemble the more traditional “Father Christmas” image in the United Kingdom – a jolly fat man dressed in white fur trim, a stocking cap, and black boots. This image was popularized by Thomas Nast, and became the prevailing image of St. Nick all around the world decades ago.
Still, the traditional image of St. Nick prevails in various places, showing him wearing a long robe and a Bishop's mitre, carrying a staff or cross. This difference even affected one of the best known images of St. Nicholas: a solemn bronze statue created by Russian sculptor Gregory Pototsky, located in the the saint's hometown of Demre, Turkey. In 2005, the mayor wanted the statue replaced by a more familiar red-suited plastic Santa Claus statue, but protests from the Russian government against this were successful, and the bronze statue remained.
Today, there are many Catholic parishes named in honor of St. Nicholas all around the world, including at least one in Illinois. While its unlikely that modern day Catholics will ever embrace some attributes of St. Nick that the early Christians celebrated (including one time where jolly old St. Nick punched a heretic in the face),we can and should restore of the custom of observing St. Nicholas Day as a separate feast day on December 6th. After all, Christmas is supposed to focus on celebrating the birth of Jesus, so its time that Santa gets his own special day again, especially as a prelude to Christmas.
One such Chicago area Catholic parish that has an annual observation of St. Nicholas Day is Annunciation in Homer Glen, Illinois. Yesterday, I visited the parish for St. Nicholas Day, and adults and children alike had a wonderful time. The evening consisted of families baking and decorating cookies for Santa, followed by a vesper service and liturgy (including Holy Communion) and then Nicholas arrived in the flesh on a horse drawn carriage (apparently the reindeer were busy this time of year and didn't have time to leave the North Pole). St. Nicholas greeted the children in the church narthex, where all of the children got to read a fact about his life, and then sit on his lap for photos and take a gift bag from St. Nick. Then the children followed Nicholas into the carriage for a ride around the parish grounds, where they sang Christmas carols together. Meanwhile, the adults came inside to warm up with a cup of hot chocolate and Christmas treats . (A photo gallery of this visit can be seen in today's column).
Perhaps other Catholic parishes in Chicago need to make some phone calls to the North Pole and see if St. Nick has time on December 5th or 6th to make a brief stop at their church. Restoring the tradition of celebrating St. Nicholas Day would put the hohoho back in the holiday season, without distracting from the focus on Jesus on December 25, 2013. Whether you’re an adult or child, it's important to remember that Santa Claus is real, and it's time we remember him in December.