Who Was the Real Saint Nicholas?

Family Matters on 12.06.11
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Today is the Feast of Saint Nicholas so it seems apropos to learn a little more about this day that celebrates the man of the season that so many of our children are clamoring to meet.  I'm embarrassed to say that before writing this I knew so little about the actual story of Saint Nick despite the fact that I've spent 34 years celebrating Christmas, but perhaps that is partially because the story of how Saint Nicholas became who we know as Santa Claus is a bit like a game of telephone across continents.  

According to the St. Nicholas Center, the actual saint was a bishop who lived in what is now southern Turkey during the fourth century.  It was there that legend has it that Saint Nicholas secretly provided the dowry of three girls whose father could not afford them or to even feed his daughters. The dowries allowed the daughters to be married and saved them from going down the path of sin and shame. With December 6th being the feast of Saint Nicholas, it became customary to give gifts in secret on the eve of this day. For many people across the world, gifts are exchanged on the eve of the Feast of Saint Nicholas and Christmas Day is strictly a religious day.

While Christmas has become an insanely commercial holiday in America, its origin is steeped in helping those less fortunate. Some of the ways the St. Nicholas Center encourages people to celebrate Saint Nicholas is by focusing on giving rather than receiving, by sharing his story of charity, and to learn more about this saint who lived his life devoted to Christ.

Just as those of us who celebrate Christmas teach our children about the story of Jesus' birth, sharing the story of Saint Nicholas is also important and has been shown to encourage positive behavior in children. A study published in the European Journal of Social Psychology found that children age four to seven in the Netherlands associate Saint Nicholas with "sharing with others" instead of getting lots of presents.

We have always celebrated Christmas, and while many members of our family are devoutly religious, my husband and I are not, and sometimes I feel guilty that we emphasize Christmas so much without truly celebrating its religiousness. However, learning more about Saint Nicholas makes me more excited to teach my small children about his true origins. In our house we don't shower our children with Christmas presents. They each receive a few small things or this year they are each receiving one larger item, and we always offer charitable donations to families in need at this time of year because we understand that we are fortunate, but this year I'm going to really focus on teaching my children that Saint Nicholas who they now know as Santa Claus is about charity and compassion. We might not change our tradition to give gifts on the eve of the Feast of Saint Nicholas, but tonight around the dinner table we'll be having a discussion about what it's really all about.

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