When I was a child, December 5 – St Nicholas Eve – was an important and tremendously exciting date on our family’s holiday calendar. In the evening, we children sang our songs to Sinterklaas and put our wooden shoes by the fireplace in expectation that the kindly old man would visit us with gifts of chocolate, mandarin oranges, and other treats. And he never failed. At some point during my growing up years, I began to notice some clues that my parents seemed to have a lot to do with Sinterklaas’ annual visit, and it dawned on me that Sinterklaas might not be real. I remember being quite disappointed at this revelation.
Several weeks later, when Christmas arrived, the centrepiece of our family celebration was a Christmas Eve carol service. This event took place not in a church building, but in our living room by firelight and candlelight, and was followed by a story which usually conveyed a message of kindness, mercy and hospitality. And so, in our not-very-devout home, we nevertheless heard each year the age-old story of the coming of Jesus into our world as bringer of forgiveness, light and hope. Somehow, I absorbed the message that Christmas was not about stuff. It was primarily about Jesus, and secondarily about showing kindness to each other and to others in need. My parents were wise enough to realize that it wouldn’t work to completely insulate their children from North American ways, so in deference to the customs of our new land we did also exchange gifts with one another on Christmas Day. However, I remember the gift-giving as relatively modest – although still accompanied by lots of fun and excitement.
In eighteenth century New York (formerly New Amsterdam), where Dutch and English speaking settlers lived side by side, Sinterklaas morphed into Santa Claus and became part of North American Christmas tradition. Over the years, many layers of mythology and tradition were added. My wife having grown up in a more typical Canadian home, the Santa Claus tradition was deeply embedded in her family’s Christmas observances, and as a young married couple we had discussions about how we would observe Christmas. Both of us wanted the main focus of our Christmas celebration to be on Jesus, not Santa Claus. I also had a concern about telling our children stories which we would later have to retract. So, after much discussion in the early years of our marriage, it was decided that in our home, we would give Christmas gifts to one another and to those in need, but there would be no gifts from Santa.
We did, however, read our children a variety of Christmas stories. Among them were a couple of renditions of the life and deeds of the historical St Nicholas, who was a pastor in Asia Minor (present-day Turkey) during the fourth century AD. Although it’s difficult to accurately separate legend from history so many years after the fact, the web site of the St Nicholas Centre paints quite a believable picture of what the real Nicholas may have been like. If the stories are reliable, it seems that Nicholas was known as an advocate for victims of injustice, and a friend to the poor who often gave financial help to those in distress. Was he jolly, as the Santa Claus legend indicates? I don’t know, but I hope so. The Bible says that God loves a cheerful giver. When our children were young, our family went through several years of living on a very modest budget. Still, as a father, one of the Biblical values I wanted to impart to my children was the value of giving to those in need. We used to have an offering box for missionaries, to which our children all contributed out of their allowance and other earnings. I loved the story of St Nicholas partly because it reinforced this core Biblical value, and helped provide a balance to the consumerism that has infected Christmas in our culture.
My children are grown up now, and two beautiful granddaughters have been added to the family circle. I love giving gifts to my children and grandchildren. I know that the best gift of all is Jesus, and I know that he takes great delight in lavishing His mercy on us. But I also know that he doesn’t care only about me and my family. He is delighted when our lives overflow with generous love towards those in material or spiritual need. I’m grateful for the example of Nicholas, a man who was a generous conduit of God’s love to the lost, poor and oppressed. I want my family’s values to reflect the generous heart of a good God who has taught us that it is more blessed to give than to receive.