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The Family Room by Michelle Martin

December 6, 2009

Jolly Old St. Nick?

It’s that time again, the day that means the Christmas holiday season is fast upon us.

No, not Thanksgiving or even Black Friday. With Frank having an end-of-November birthday, we usually try to get passed that before we get into the pre-Christmas swing.

I mean the Feast of St. Nicholas for which my children still leave out their shoes in hopes of finding a piece or two of candy in the morning.

I enjoy the ritual at the same time I find it faintly ridiculous. After all, it’s not like leaving their shoes out is anything unusual. It’s just that, usually, their shoes are scattered on the living room floor, ready to trip any unsuspecting adult who tries to navigate to the couch. On this night, leaving them “out” means setting them neatly on a kitchen stool.

And candy? I think there are still leftovers from Halloween somewhere. So it’s not like they’ve been deprived of their recommended daily allowance of sugar.

But somehow, it wouldn’t be the holiday season if we didn’t celebrate the feast of the patron of bakers and pawnbrokers.

After all, the St. Nicholas of history doesn’t bear much relation to Santa Claus. No wonder he doesn’t visit on the same night.

All that is really known about St. Nicholas is that he was bishop of Myra in Asia Minor during the fourth century, and was apparently renowned for his holiness. He was regarded as a saint, after all.

His legend grew with the help of St. Methodius, who died in 847, but not before writing a biography of Nicholas, some five centuries after he died.

The origin of the Santa Claus story seems to come from the legend of St. Nicholas the bishop coming to the aid of three daughters of a poor man, who could not afford dowries for them and planned to sell them into prostitution. (Not really much of a children’s story, I know). To save them from that fate, the generous prelate threw gold through the girls’ bedroom window at night, and it landed in the stockings drying on the bedposts, thus starting the tradition of the Christmas stocking — even though there is no indication it happened anywhere near Christmastime.

Other stories about St. Nicholas talk about him being present at the Council of Nicea in 325, making a strong defense of the faith against heresies, up to and including slapping Arius in the face and forcing the closure of temples to pagan gods and goddesses.

This year, maybe we’ll talk a little about that history when the kids find their shoes before bed on Dec. 5. But whatever the facts in the case, I have confidence that they will find candy (maybe even chocolate coins, to honor the legend) in them the next morning. Martin is assistant editor of the Catholic New World. Contact her at mmartin@

Martin is assistant editor of the Catholic New World. Contact her at [email protected].