Saint Nicholas and Our Contemporary Christmas Culture

With Thanksgiving over, the month-long pre-Christmas season begins in earnest.  The sales are also on – in fact, many stores have been decorated for the holidays since mid-October.  It is tempting to think the truth of the Christ Child is again being eclipsed by the secular voice of commercialism.

But as Pope Francis says, “Do not let yourselves be robbed of hope.”  This time also presents special opportunities.  The popularity of Christmas – not only its contemporary commercial aspects, but the spirit of Christmas, the spirit of giving and good will – among those who practice no faith shows a yearning for more than material possessions.

This season offers many chances to spread the seeds of faith.  Not only are Advent wreaths, nativity scenes, and Christmas carols occasions to tell the story of Jesus, but many images of popular culture can be windows of opportunity.  Culture is the field of evangelization.  Indeed, as Christianity spread, the early Church learned to make use of various symbols and ideas from pagan culture to express the Gospel message within the context of people’s lives so they could understand it (Gaudium et Spes, 44; Redemptoris Missio, 25, 44).

Similarly, highlighting the goodness and truth that is present in today’s culture – and there is some! – can prompt a step forward in the journey, preparing people to be receptive to the Gospel (cf. Lumen Gentium, 16; CCC 843, 856).  For example, from Santa to Scrooge, the Grinch, and more – in stories and film – these can be appropriated for their messages of giving, doing good, and redemption.

Santa Claus also provides an opportunity to say, “Did you know?” and to tell the real story.  Beyond being a metaphor for selfless giving, he was an actual historical person named Nicholas, whose feast day is today.

A popular saint in the eastern Church, Saint Nicholas was born in the late 3rd century.  After becoming bishop of Myra, he was harshly imprisoned during the persecution of the Emperor Diocletian.  Nicholas was released during Constantine’s reign and later participated in the Council of Nicaea, which settled some crucial doctrinal disputes, including affirming that Jesus is “God from God, Light from Light, true God from true God, begotten, not made, consubstantial with the Father.”

Over the years, Nicholas’ reputation as a protector and helper of those in need became legendary.  Many stories report how he rescued children from danger or worked to exonerate people who had been wrongly imprisoned.  Another story tells how he kept three impoverished young maidens from an evil fate by secretly providing them dowries so they could marry.  Also, when a hazardous storm arose during a voyage taken by Nicholas, sailors attributed the calming of the sea and saving of their ship to his prayers.

Nicholas died in the mid-4th century and was buried in Myra, but in 1087, his relics were brought to Bari, Italy, and placed in what is now the Basilica di San Nicola.  In addition to children and sailors, many other groups and places venerate Nicholas as their patron saint.

Of course in the west, Nicholas’ image has changed to become Santa Claus.  While we all can appreciate the fun of Santa, those we encounter would benefit from learning about the real Saint Nicholas.  Likewise, exchanging presents is a wonderful custom, but as we do, we can help others realize that Christmas does not come from a store, but instead means quite a bit more.

Together, we can reclaim the season.  Christmas is “Christ’s Mass.” It is the celebration of the birth of our Lord who has come to be with us, to be one of us.  As we prepare for his coming, let us thank God that we have found this truth – that the best gift one can receive is not a material thing but the love of Jesus, and in helping others to know him, we give the most perfect gift one can give another.