Ah, Happy Feast of St. Nick!

Blessing the children from photobucket.com/st%20niholas#1

Blessing the children from photobucket.com/st%20nicholas#1

December 6th is, most places, celebrated as the feast of St. Nicholas. Maybe there’s something to be learned from a saint dead yea, these 16 centuries.

In my own experience, St. Nicholas was a capricious kind of saint.

Some years, on December 5th, my mother would remind us: “Put your shoes by the fireplace!” The next morning we’d get up, and there would be a little something there–a game, a coloring book, and maybe some foil covered chocolate coins (wrapped securely in plastic—we were often directed to find them on the side board–to protect them both from the prowling dog and from the stinky insides of the well-worn shoes.)

Other years, the day would slide by and somewhere around December 15th, someone would say, “Hey, isn’t St. Nicholas Day around now sometime?”

“Hmm,” my mother would say.  “You must not have been very good this year.”

I could always, as a child, find enough guilt in my hidden thoughts to explain the saint’s missed visit.  Only later did I imagine my harried mother, having said her prayers, climbing into bed just before midnight on December 5th, the house finally neatened and quiet.  I picture her just getting settled down…then bolting upright to say, “Oh, BALLS! [That was her favorite cuss word; I often wonder what exactly she thought was expressing when she used it.] St. Nicholas Day is tomorrow.”

And my half-asleep father would rumble, “Ahhh, don’t worry about it.  They’ve been little yi-yi’s, anyway.”

The years St. Nick DID come though, it was kind of a mini-miracle, the better, I think, because it was one that could not be depended upon.

At Catholic school, we learned about the saint, intrigued by some blood-soaked legends. Nicholas was the Bishop of Myra, in Asia Minor, in the fourth century.  He is, Wikipedia informs me, the patron saint not just of children, but also of coopers, sailors, fishermen, merchants, broadcasters, the falsely accused, repentant thieves, pharmacists, archers, and pawnbrokers.  Quite an assembly for kids to be hanging out with–no wonder we loved the guy!

St. Nicholas also had many miracles to his credit.  Most famously, he saved three daughters of a poor family from what the nuns described as spinster-hood by tossing sacks of dowry gold down their chimney one night.  The chimney tossing is explained as either the saint’s personal modesty or his discretion–an anonymous gift is harder to refuse, after all, than face-to-face charity.  Legend variously has it that the girls had left their shoes by the fire and the money fell into the shoes, or that they’d hung their socks to dry from the mantel.  One of the flying money bags, it is said, slipped smack down a stocking, stretching out the toe.

The kindly gesture explains the tradition in some countries of putting shoes by the fire, and in our own country, of hanging stockings, on Christmas Eve. And good St. Nick, of course, morphed over many long years into Santa Claus.

I only read later,—the nuns never mentioned this particular wrinkle—, that, had the three poor virgins NOT gotten the dowries, they might have been forced into lives of prostitution, the only available work for unmarried women of the day.

So that was a very nice miracle, with very nice traditions growing from it, but there was a different miracle story we all clamored for in the second grade classroom at St. Joe’s. I remember it as the story of a traveller staying at an inn owned by an unscrupulous butcher.  In the night, the butcher attacked the man, chopped him up, and put the pieces in the pickle barrel.  The next day, St. Nicholas came to call, and asked about the missing visitor.  The butcher was all unknowing innocence, but, at a few words from the Saint, the traveller jumped from the pickle barrel, intact and unharmed. Woe to the greedy butcher!

When I looked the story up to get the details straight in my mind, I was surprised to find that the most common versions have the butcher chopping up either three children or three clerks.  The children went into the pickle barrels, but the clerks, on the advice of Mrs. Butcher, were baked into meat pies.  But again, a visit from the Saint, the power of prayer: victims restored, butcher’s guilt established.

What a horrible tale to tell children!  How we loved it! In the early ’60’s, in my Catholic school, saints and martyrs were our rock stars.  We reveled in their ultimate and gory sacrifices.

One of the churches we visited occasionally had a statue of Saint Lucy with her luminous face raised to heaven. [We’d go there  for the later Saturday confessions when we missed 3:00 confession at our own church.  I hated confessing there, because the priest gave whole decades of the rosary as penance. My brothers would taunt me–What did YOU do?  It took you half an hour to say your penance!  But they were only done faster because they went first…and then they abbreviated.]   She was holding a plate on which her eyeballs rested.

One of the reasons it took me so long to say my penance was that I knelt and stared at those glassy eyeballs.  The story was that Lucy, determined to live a virginal life as a bride of Christ, removed her eyes to give to a suitor who’d admired them.  An extreme  interpretation of “If your eye offend you, pluck it out,” for certain.

But I digress: St. Nicholas. When Jim and Matt were little, and when I remembered, I got them usually-banned sugary cereal as a special St. Nicholas Day treat–Christmas Lucky Charms, maybe, or red and green colored Cap’n Crunch.  Or sometimes, when I happened upon them in the store, I’d surprise the boys with those foil wrapped coins on the morning of December 6th.  We never made a big deal out of it, never left shoes by the fireplace; there was no disappointment when the Saint didn’t visit.

That was fun and low-key and a nice way to honor the Saint’s gifting tradition.

Revisiting the story, though, I am drawn by the saint’s anonymous distribution of dowry funds; his method of helping was one that enabled the parents to be the benefactors of their daughters’ good luck.  I like the dignity given to the family in need.

Several years ago, in a different town, at a different church, we were involved in a wonderful project the youth group put together. We shopped for an unknown family every Christmas. We put together a meal and gifts based on information from the family’s adults, who then were able to pick it all up and put it under their tree, serve it at their own table.  That’s how it should be–no strangers’ expectant faces waiting to be properly thanked; just a warm and loving, I hope, family holiday.

Hmm. Maybe there’s a way, this year, in this town, to toss a bag or two down an unsuspecting chimney.

So, anyway. Happy St. Nicholas Day!  Whether you put out shoes, hang stockings, or go through your day unhampered by the fact that the Bishop of Myra had it named for him 16 centuries ago or so, I hope this season of light brings lots of little miracles your way.

May we be miracles for each other during the darkness, too.