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St. Nicholas and the Tradition of Gift-Giving

 

“The giver of every good and perfect gift has called upon us to mimic His giving, by grace, through faith, and this is not of ourselves.”

St. Nicholas of Myra

In the third century, approximately AD 270, a boy named Nicholas was born to affluent parents in a village called Patara, now located in present-day Turkey. Tragically, at a young age, Nicholas lost his parents to an epidemic, which left him with a significant inheritance. As an orphan grappling with his newfound wealth, Nicholas turned to the teachings of the Scriptures for guidance. Inspired by these teachings, he chose to assist the underprivileged and destitute. Nicholas selflessly used his entire inheritance for charitable acts throughout his life. He was eventually appointed as the Bishop of Myra and is known to this day as Saint Nicholas.

One of the most famous stories associated with St. Nicholas involves a poor man who had three daughters but couldn’t afford dowries for them to be married, which would have led to a bleak future for the girls. At night in secret, Nicholas threw bags of gold coins through the window of their house on three occasions, providing the necessary dowries. On the third occasion, the father hid himself to see who this mysterious giver was. As Nicholas threw the bag of coins through the window, the father sprung out of his hiding place and seized him. Nicholas pleaded with him to keep his identity a secret, wishing to continue his charitable deeds anonymously.

As the veneration of St. Nicholas spread across Europe, different cultures incorporated their own traditions and legends. In many European countries, December 6th (the day of St. Nicholas’ death) became a day for gift-giving and festivities in his honor. In the Netherlands, St. Nicholas became known as “Sinterklaas.” Dutch immigrants later carried the tradition to North America, where “Sinterklaas” phonetically became, as we know him today, “Santa Claus.” While St. Nicholas was a religious figure associated with acts of charity, the character of Santa Claus evolved over time, especially in the U.S. during the 19th century. Writers and illustrators like Washington Irving and Thomas Nast played roles in shaping the modern image of Santa Claus―a jolly, rotund, and bearded figure in a red suit. Over time, Santa Claus became more commercialized, especially with the rise of modern advertising.

While I hold the view that promoting the Santa Claus myth to our children may not be beneficial or prudent, the historical tales of St. Nicholas and his benevolence offer a commendable alternative. His narrative aligns with Biblical teachings that every child ought to know, and his legacy of giving serves as a wonderful model for us. Here are three reasons to embrace St. Nicholas’ tradition of gift-giving:

Gift-Giving as a Reflection of Divine Grace

Grace, by its very nature, is a gift. It’s undeserved and cannot be earned. We read in Ephesians 2:8-9, “For by grace you have been saved through faith, and this not of yourselves, it is the gift of God; not of works, so that no one may boast.” When Christians give gifts, especially without expecting anything in return, it mirrors the nature of divine grace. It’s a tangible and practical representation of God’s unparalleled generosity and love toward humanity. By giving and receiving gifts with this perspective, individuals can be reminded of the greater grace they’ve received and are called to extend to others.

Gift-Giving as an Act of Love

Every act of giving in Christian love mirrors God’s ultimate gift: Jesus Christ. As John 3:16 affirms, “For God so loved the world, that He gave His only Son…” Here, love and giving are inseparably intertwined. Gifts, whether grand or humble, serve as reminders of this boundless divine love. Furthermore, the act of giving, when done in love, becomes a profound theological act, reflecting the nature of God Himself.

God’s grace is motivated by His infinite love for humanity. Likewise, when individuals give gifts selflessly, it’s an act of love. 1 John 4:19 reminds us, “We love, because He first loved us.” In a way, selfless gift-giving becomes a reflection, albeit limited, of the immense love and grace God showers upon humanity.

Gift-Giving as a Form of Worship

True worship encompasses surrendering oneself entirely to God. When believers give, especially sacrificially, they are essentially laying down a part of themselves on the altar of worship. It’s an acknowledgment that everything one possesses is ultimately from God and is to be used for His glory. In the context of gift-giving, by giving selflessly to others, believers emulate God’s own generous nature. Each act of giving becomes a mini reflection of the monumental gift of grace that believers have received.

Conclusion

Embracing the tradition of St. Nicholas’ gift-giving is not just about preserving a historical or cultural practice; it is about realigning our holiday gestures with foundational Christian values. By doing so, we remind ourselves and future generations of the true essence of gift-giving―not as a mere holiday ritual, but as a living testimony to God’s abundant grace, His boundless love, and our continuous act of worship. In this season and beyond, may we find inspiration in the life of St. Nicholas and strive to give with the same selflessness, compassion, and love that he did.

For further reading
The True Saint Nicholas by William Bennett
The Battle for Christmas by Stephen Nissenbaum
The Four Emotions of Christmas by Bob Lepine
When Santa Learned the Gospel by Simon Camilleri
Patrick Williams

Patrick Williams

Patrick Williams is married to Allison and together they have three daughters: Naomi Grace, Elizabeth Faith, and Lydia Christine. He is the Pastor of Redemption Fellowship, a new church plant in Ashland City, TN, and an author focusing on theology for children and family worship. Williams is currently pursuing a dual BA and M. Div in Global Engagement at Gateway Seminary in Los Angeles, California.

December 25, 2023

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