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Theological Stocking Stuffers, Week 5: Jolly Old St. Nicholas

Lucy O'Donnell, age 6, and Santa.

On the evening of Dec. 5, 1986, my mom and I came home after some event or other, walking up the two flights of stairs to our apartment as usual, when we came upon an unexpected sight on the landing. Boots. Three boots. Decorated for Christmas. Not three pairs of boots. Just three boots. Three unmatched boots. Two big, and one little. A mama’s, a papa’s and a small boy’s.

Before I had a chance to be curious, my mother’s face broke into a grin and she clapped her hands in delight.  “It's St. Nicholas Day tomorrow!” she exclaimed.

“St. Nicholas Day?” I asked, knowing that St. Nicholas is the pattern for Santa Claus, but having no idea that he had his own day.

“Yes,” Mom explained. “It’s celebrated in Germany much more than in the U.S. People put their boots on the doormat and wake up to find them filled with goodies!” She was delighted to see evidence of St. Nicholas Day — I think it made her feel like she was getting a glimpse of the real Germany — and I’ve never forgotten the fun of seeing those boots, ready and waiting for St. Nicholas to come.

Santa Claus, of course, and Father Christmas, as he’s known in the United Kingdom, both derive from Saint Nicholas. What would Christmas be without him?

I’ve caught several glimpses of Santa recently. I first saw him at the Holiday Parade on 10th Street a few weeks ago. It was a cold night, but still enjoyable to watch the short parade, hear the marching band and see the Jolly Old Elf himself usher in the season. I actually saw him that morning as well, at the Veterans Day program at the high school, but he was in disguise so I played along and pretended not to know him.

Santa turned up again to wish the high school marching band well when they left in four buses for California. They would have appreciated his magical flying powers when they faced the long return trip, but that’s not an ability Santa can dole out willy nilly.

Most recently, I glimpsed Santa at the Pioneer Village Christmas celebration. The line to visit him was out the door and my 10-year-old didn’t feel the need to stand in that line to speak with a man she’s spoken with before, even if he does know who’s been naughty and who’s been nice.

As we bypassed the line, I couldn’t help but remember the first time she sat on his knee. She was 6, and a little reluctant, but Santa was friendly and chatty, and Lucy played along, though the photo I took that day proves that she was rather wary as the angle she was sitting at implied that Santa wasn’t entirely to be trusted.

I was raised to believe that Santa Claus was a “nice pretend,” as my mother put it. She then proceeded to teach me that Santa was patterned after St. Nicholas, a third century man who gave to those in need and ultimately set a pattern for generosity and caring for those who are sick and suffering. Dec. 6 — St. Nicholas Day — is the anniversary of his death.

December 25, two and a half weeks later, is, of course, the anniversary not of a death but of a birth. The birth of a man who, like St. Nicholas, set a pattern for generosity and caring. A pattern that St. Nicholas followed. Followed to such a degree that he was sainted for it.

Santa Claus has a lot to live up to! And so do we, if we pattern our lives after the original, that little baby who inspired St. Nicholas and the world to be generous and caring and worthy of emulating.

Oh, how short I fall! May this season of Christmas deepen the groves of the pattern of Jesus in me; and in you.

“‘This child is destined to cause the falling and rising of many in Israel, and to be a sign that will be spoken against, so that the thoughts of many hearts will be revealed. And a sword will pierce your own soul too.’” Luke 2:34,35