St. Nicholas was born in what is today southwestern Turkey and was elected bishop of Myra, capital of the province, where he gained a reputation for holiness, charity, and pastoral zeal. Imprisoned for a time during the persecution of Diocletian (303-305) he was freed under Constantine and participated in the first ecumenical council at Nicea (325). His popularity in Eastern and Western Christianity preceded the transfer of his relics from Myra to Bari in Italy in 1087. The custom of bestowing un-deserved gifts (not rewards for good behavior) on the eve of his feast spread from the Netherlands all over northern Europe and morphed into the visit of Sinter Claus (Santa Claus) on Christmas eve when the Dutch brought the custom to New Amsterdam in the 17th century .
St. Nicholas Day in Modern Times.
“What are myths?” asked the school psychologist. “O, you know, mythology–those are stories,” paused the 5-year old, Anika, “stories who aren’t true on the outside. But they are true on the inside.”
This little scenario is reported by a friend of mine, Gertrud Mueller Nelson, in To Dance With God (Paulist Press, 1986) p. 86. An actual student of Carl Jung, Gertrud uses this story about Anika to introduce the following reflection on the deep archetypal value of myths and rituals that many of our contemporaries–with their exclusively “scientific” understanding of truth– seem to have lost. Gertrud continues:
The mythology of St. Nicholas is the manifestation of a great inner truth. We do not lie when we share that sort of truth with our children, so long as it is not distorted or contaminated by our own lack of belief or distorted in allowing it to be the whole truth. We cannot apply to our children what we are not willing to “believe in” ourselves. And if we separate ourselves so far from the inner truth that we no longer believe, then our attempt to make our children believe is an exercise in our own sentimentality. And sentimentality is a lie.
What is the inner truth here? The mythic figure of St. Nicholas represents the archetypal “parent-figure.” Unfortunately in his modern dress as Santa Claus he has been relegated to a powerless figure, neither mysterious nor inspired. Any vestiges of the “sacred” or the serious are drowned with a HO! HO! HO! The department store Santa teaches us to beg for what we want and HE will patronizingly provide.
But at the core, Santa has the mythological basis of a powerful type:
He is a capable symbol who might well carry the type of God, the Father and Creator. He carries a father image that imbues all fatherhood, and leadership and authority everywhere with dignity and a powerful creativity. He is certainly that great Papa, a grandfather, who has given us so much and continues to nourish us out of his endless store of gifts that knows no end, who knows us so well, and who rescues us from our own inadequacies. But he also lends us the courage to grow and change, and helps us to see the world as it really is and requires that we do our part (80-81).
The whole rest of this chapter is worth the price of the whole book. In it, she describes how St. Nicholas Day was celebrated when her children were growing up–and most of them have carried on this tradition in their own families:
A European Tradition Tailor-Made
In our house we celebrate the feast of St. Nicholas on December 6 as it is celebrated in many countries. We keep the celebration separate from our celebration of the birth of Christ at Christmas. What we taught (our children) and what we believe is that St. Nicholas is real on the inside. He comes back to this earth from his place in heaven and relives his holy actions. One way in which he functions is through any person willing to continue his work of generosity, justice and creativity. He lives in the hearts of mothers and fathers who know about him and understand his ways. He lives in the hearts and actions of children who catch on to his message and, now wise to his ways, participate in his secret gift giving. He puts the ideas into our heads and the actions into our hands that further his work here on earth. The spirit of Nicholas rises up every Advent and fills the house with his mysterious and unseen secrets. He inspires how we prepare our Christmas gifts during Advent and the spirit in which we give and receive. His gift-giving was such an art that he gives us the finest lessons available as we prepare our own gifts for each other during the Advent season. He teaches how to give “so that the right hand doesn’t know what the left hand is doing”. That has inspired the concept that we are each one a “little Nicholas,” and during Advent the children creep and sneak about doing good for one another, never letting on “who done it.”
… On the eve of the feast, my husband and I would stay up and bake traditional St. Nicholas cookies as well as most of the Christmas cookies and store them away in the freezer. This not only frees up the rest of Advent for our other projects, but it supplies Nicholas the necessary “foretaste of Christmas” he needs to give us on his feast day. …Then in the early morning darkness of December 6, the family would proceed-I think I could say, processed- into the candlelit dining room. The smell of spices and tangerines hung in the air. We sang our songs and danced around the table and finally came to a halt before our own plates which we had placed there in ceremony the night before. Our plates were heaped with samples of each of the traditional Christmas goodies we would enjoy in greater abundance during the twelve days of Christmas. There were nuts and fruits and a variety of cookies. At each plate there was propped up a little book or other small gift. The chandelier was hung with greens and special cookies formed in a different symbol for the family members and signifying some charming trait, a weakness or a current passion: a cat for the cat lover, an ice skate for the fanatic skater, a snail for the one who was always late, a telephone for the talker. The central cookie was of St. Nicholas with beard and mitre. In the candlelight, it was magical. (To Dance With God, 82-85).
My sister, Mary Cathryn (who sent me this excerpt from To Dance With God) added this suggestion for our readers:
You may wish to introduce the concept of being a “little St. Nicholas” and involve each family member in secret kindnesses to one another. You can include friends and neighbors into being secretly gifted. Whatever tradition you decide upon be certain to keep to the ritual. A tradition is precisely a tradition because it is repeated in the same way year after year, no matter what. Our children assured us, you’re never too old for tradition. Jung said: “A ritual must be done according to tradition, and if you change one little point, you make a mistake”
Sustainability. How does this connect with living sustainably? Think about it for a while… check back later to see some of the connections we have experienced.