I found a really fascinating site run by a non-profit web-based organization called the Saint Nicholas Center. The founders are an Anglican gentleman and a woman belonging to the Reformed denomination who both share a love and fascination with Saint Nicholas. Their website has put together a big collection of links and articles on the truth about Saint Nicholas – facts about his life, the myths and legends, and cultural observances of his feast day. You’ll love this link to an older news story the Center posted – it’s about the work to reconstruct the face of Saint Nicholas using modern forensic techniques. Should I be surprised that the recreated face of Saint Nicholas looks amazingly close to the traditional depiction of him in Orthodox iconography?
I take a special joy in the celebration of Saint Nicholas Day. As a kid it meant that my brother and I got to put out a sock the night before and next morning find it filled with fruit, nuts and chocolate. It was the 60’s and 70’s, so that meant we’d put out these big, knee-high athletic tube socks thinking they’d be filled with more stuff. We’d hang them up by clamping the edge of the sock in a heavy dresser drawer so that by the next morning, they would be stretched out to nearly three feet long with the weight of the goodies. As soon as we opened our eyes, my younger brother and I would see the stretched-out sausage of a sock with goodies fallen to the very bottom and we would be out of bed faster than on any other day of the year. We’d pour out the sock on our bedroom floor and go straight for the chocolate, which was disappointingly, always out of proportion to the amount of nuts and fruit we got. (My mother would take great care to pick out the largest, shiniest red apple and the perfect orange for our stockings. As a mother I now find myself meticulously examining the goods in the produce aisle looking for perfectly formed apples and oranges for my kids’ stockings, knowing full well that it’s only the chocolate they’re interested in.)
My whole family is German through and through, but it was my mother who was the keeper of Germanic tradition in our house. I grew up thinking this was some special treat only for German kids and I’d make sure my friends at the school bus stop would know that I’d gotten to eat chocolate for breakfast courtesy of Saint Nicholas. I also think that as a Lutheran it may have been my only exposure to the celebration of the life of someone called a saint. Oh sure there was Saint Paul, Saint Luke, Saint John, but those were names in the bible. This guy actually had a special day. That seemed very Catholic to me and maybe it’s why I liked this tradition so much. I think the seeds of my acceptance of the veneration of the saints were planted by this simple childhood tradition.
But it must be some universal truth that childrens’ love of tradition is based upon what they think they’re going to get out of it – candy and toys. The Whos down in Whoville just wanted to sing together after the Grinch nicked their stuff. Today, my own little materialistic, self-absorbed inheritors of tradition only want to make sure Saint Nicholas put an equal number of chocolate candies in both stockings. But unlike my mother’s own limited knowledge about the life of Saint Nicholas, I try to slip in bits of information about the “real” Saint Nicholas. Hopefully that information will stick with my kids.
Tonight is Great Vespers for the Feast of Saint Nicholas and tomorrow morning is Divine Liturgy. I’m going to try and make it to Liturgy, and in the evening after regular Saturday vespers, my parish is having a small Saint Nicholas party for the kids, as well as the children of the local Catholic Worker House. Pizza and cookies, but no one to dress up and hand out candy. What a shame.
I wish everyone blessings on the celebration of the feast of our wonderworking father among the saints, Saint Nicholas of Myra.
Troparion of the Feast of Saint Nicholas
In truth you were revealed to your flock
as a rule of faith,
an image of humility and
a teacher of abstinence;
your humility exalted you;
your poverty enriched you.
Hierarch Father Nicholas,
entreat Christ our God
that our souls may be saved.