St. Nicholas Day: Santa, Mystery and Small Family Ritual
Tomorrow is St. Nicholas Day! Our family will be celebrating by acting out the St. Nicholas story with a few friends, eating Santa cookies, sorting through toys and clothes to donate, and collecting canned food. This is a post I originally published on my friend Christine’s blog two years ago. My kids are older, but so far, the ritual is continuing…
I talk about ritual a lot: Ritual and beauty. Grace. And how I want my kids to remember that we made their lives at home into a liturgy of sorts. When they’re grown, I long for them to say we made all of it beautiful.
I’m a writer. So I put that on paper. I say it to strangers. But when we’re in the middle of settling into our home, two months out from a cross-country move, the liturgy of our life together looks a lot more like frantic doing. And “No, I can’t play right now, sweetie. I have to blah blah blah blah.” (Blah includes: cleaning, organizing, buying Christmas presents, building shelves, finding a dresser on craigslist and on and on.) But that’s why we practice ritual in the first place, right? We set up our lives so that there is space in our dailyness for celebration and teaching and loving the least of these.
Last year I was given the chance to know a dear woman named Christine, a friend whose commitment to prayerful tradition in her home is awe-inspiring. After hearing her talk about how she practices ritual with her kids throughout the Advent and Christmas season, I felt totally overwhelmed. How could I follow her example? Where could begin? So I took one of her many beautiful ideas and shaped it to our family.
My oldest son is four and he’s completely obsessed with the idea of Santa. Now, I’m one of those Christians who likes Santa Claus. I think he’s fun. And mysterious. I think Christmas should always be fun and mysterious. But I still sometimes worry about is my son’s obsession with gifts. I worry that Santa will overshadow in his four-year-old spirit what’s most true of Christmas: the God who incarnated himself, who came to us and lived with us.
Enter St. Nicholas Day, which officially occurs on December 6, but which our little family celebrates on one of the Saturdays surrounding it, right in the middle of all the demands of holiday parties and gift buying and card sending. It’s a day we stop and make choices as a family to walk in St. Nicholas’ footsteps: to give, not of obligation or pity, but out of gratitude.
Here’s how we do it:
Leading up to our family celebration, we read a book about St. Nicholas (I recommend this one half-heartedly. It’s a bit intense so I tend to skip some parts.) And we watch the Veggie Tails version of the saint (which I recommend wholeheartedly). And we talk about what it means: That Santa’s first name was Nicholas, how he loved Jesus so much that he dedicated his life to taking care of the people who needed help. He gave them food and money and clothes because Jesus taught us to do so. Nicholas is an example for all us.
We can do that too! We say. So we wake up Saturday morning shouting, “Happy St. Nicholas Day!” The boys will find some chocolate coins in their shoes. We’ll read the story of the saint as a family. We’ll read a verse from the Bible about taking care of people in need. Then we’ll set to work.
At this point in my little family’s life—my oldest is 4 and my baby is 20 months—serving those in need looks different that it might look when we’re all old enough to head to the soup kitchen together or sing carols with folks at a nursing home. Right now we keep it simple: Help them learn to give. Help them learn to sacrifice their material security and practice simplicity. Help them make room in their toy boxes. So, as a family we’ll sort through the toys I’ve already set aside to give away. We’ll work to help the four-year-old understand (as much as possible) that even though giving toys away is hard, it’s good. He’ll approve (a little sadly, I’m sure) of our gifts and I’ll give him the chance to choose one thing more, something he feels ready to offer to another child.
Then we’ll talk about the two children we sponsor through Compassion International. We’ll look at our map of the world and we’ll look at how they live. (We may read a book checked out of the library or look up the country online.) The boys will make them pictures. My husband and I will write them letters. And we’ll put stamps on those letters.
I’ve already got a pile of clothes to give away stacked in the hallway. When we leave the house for our adventure, we’ll have the toys, the boxes of clothes, and the stamped letters ready to go.
First, we’ll stop at Goodwill, then at the women and children’s shelter with our used toys, then the post office. By that point, if every one in the car hasn’t succumbed to tears, we’ll stop at the grocery store and fill up our cart with non perishables. The boys get to pick their favorite brand of mac n’ cheese, of course. And the grown-ups grab the practical stuff. Our last stop is the Food Bank.
We’ll probably pray in there somewhere. We’ll pray for our boys to have hearts of compassion. We’ll pray that they always remember how God longs for the poor and broken to be cared for, to be noticed and loved. We’ll pray that they’ll never love things more than people. We’ll pray they will have a heart like St. Nicholas.
And whenever they think of Santa shimmying down the chimney with the Lightning McQueen toy they’re most dreaming of, we’ll pray they’ll remember that, amazingly, the best gifts are usually the ones we give, not those we receive.
I pray they’ll love the mystery of Santa. What kid doesn’t? But I hope they’ll love him most for his heart, his kindness, his willingness to love back because of the Savior who rescued his life.
I pray they’ll look back at this little family ritual—this brief day in the midst so many normals—as beautiful, as miraculous, as a way their tired parents taught them to love.