The general rule of thumb is that the saints are always supposed to point us to God. The stories of the saints aren’t always real factual, and we cannot rely on them for actual historical records. That’s not their purpose. The stories of the saints are designed to illuminate the saints’ lives in a colorful way and to get us thinking about strengthening our relationship with God.
I was thinking about that as I was reading the stories of St. Nicholas. He died probably around the year 350 or so, so we don’t really know a lot about him. But that doesn’t mean there aren’t stories! One of the best known is that St. Nicholas came from a very well-to-do family. He became aware of a family in his village that had three daughters who were close to marrying age. The father was very poor and could not provide a dowry for his daughters, so that meant in that time, they would generally have to resort to prostitution. St. Nicholas had no intention of seeing that happen.
So one night, he walked by the man’s house and tossed a bunch of gold coins wrapped up in a cloth through the window. The man rejoiced the next morning on finding it, and so he gave thanks to God. He was able to provide a dowry for his oldest daughter. A while later, the second daughter was to be married, and St. Nicholas repeated the same action. The man again woke up to find the gold, and what did he do? He gave thanks to God! And then he was able to provide for his second daughter’s dowry. A short time after that, St. Nicholas did the same so that the youngest daughter could have a dowry, and this time the man woke up when he heard the gold hit the floor in his house. So he ran out the door and began to follow Nicholas, and eventually realized who it was he was following. He knelt down and wanted to kiss the saint’s feet, but Nicholas would not let him, and made him promise not to tell of it as long as he lived.
And so this was the story that led to the giving of gifts on St. Nicholas’s feast day. And it’s just a little twist of the tongue in English that turned St. Nicholas into Santa Claus. I think the celebration of St. Nicholas shines an interesting light on our gift giving. St. Nicholas did not want to be known for his generosity. He wanted to keep it quiet and was content to have the man give the glory and praise to God for the generous gift. How willing are we to do the same? Or does our gift giving have a sort of one-upsmanship to it? The giving of gifts is not bad or good; it is the intent of the giver and the heart of the receiver that really matters. When we wrap up our gifts in these Advent days, and when we unwrap them on Christmas, I wonder if we can tuck some prayer in it somewhere. Maybe we can find a way to give glory to God among all the hectic-ness of our Christmas season.