The feast of St. Nicholas was always a big day at my house when I was growing up. I’d leave a pair of shoes outside my bedroom door on the feast day’s eve and wake up on the morning of Dec. 6 to find them filled with treats — usually chocolate bars and a few packs of baseball cards. It was an appetizer during Advent of the full gift-giving feast that was to come at Christmas.
As a kid, that’s why I loved St. Nicholas Day. But now I look forward to the feast for different reasons. While children may focus on the “getting” aspect of the day, St. Nicholas has important lessons to teach us adults about charity and the importance of ministering to those most in need in our communities.
St. Nicholas lived in the third and fourth centuries and served as the bishop of Myra in what is now the country of Turkey. Stories and legends of his generosity abound — how he funded the dowry of three young women on the verge of destitution, how he appeared to a merchant in a dream and convinced him to sell his grain to the famine-stricken people of Myra, and how he saved three innocent men from beheading.
These stories illustrate St. Nicholas’ commitment to both charity and justice, particularly for people whom we would consider today to be on the peripheries of society.
Eight years ago, I interviewed Adam English, author of the book “The Saint Who Would be Santa Claus: The True Life and Trials of Nicholas of Myra.” He said these stories help to explain what Christian charity really demands of us: “That you find somebody who is on that brink of hopelessness and you help them out in the name of Jesus, not because they deserve it, not because they’re high and important, but because it’s the right thing to do.”
If you have small children, start a St. Nicholas Day tradition if you haven’t already. Share some of these stories as they enjoy small treats from the saint. And I encourage everyone to reach out into the community on Dec. 6, which this year falls on a Sunday. There are ways to do it safely during the pandemic: Write a letter to an elderly relative whom you haven’t been able to visit in a while, arrange for a delivery of groceries to a parishioner or neighbor in need, make a donation to your local food shelf.
St. Nicholas is a model of faith-in-action that we should emulate. In fact, this is the reason my son took Nicholas as his confirmation name several years ago. St. Nicholas is a worthy Advent guide as we prepare for the Christmas season.
For more about St. Nicholas, visit the website of the St. Nicholas Center: https://www.stnicholascenter.org.
Joe Towalski is the editor and the director of communications for the Diocese of St. Cloud.