Saturday, December 06, 2008

St. Nicholas Day

Often times we rightly complain about the secularization of Christmas, or at least the loss of direct Christian sense of the season, and the season of Advent which leads up to it.

In particular, we see the issue of Christmas becoming about "Santa Claus" rather than the Christ-child, and clearly that is something that has to be corrected and addressed by refocusing upon the Nativity of Our Lord. Of course, a first thought might be to fight this by simply abandoning Santa Claus altogether. But another way to approach the question would involve not the abandonment of the figure of Santa Claus per se, but instead to reclaim him and re-define him for what he really is; not a "jolly old elf" but rather a jolly (and saintly) old bishop.

The very figure of "Santa Claus" originates from St. Nicholas, "Sinterklaas" in Dutch, and in various parts of Northern Europe, this day (or the vigil of this day), which is the Feast of St. Nicholas, is still culturally celebrated in some fashion. No doubt it has become cultural to a large extent as well, but one significant difference is that this figure, while clearly related to the North American "Santa Claus" figure, is also clearly vested as a Catholic bishop and thus also more easily identifiable as a saint -- and to that extent, it is quite a bit more usable to us in helping reclaim the Christian foundations of Christmas and that which surrounds it.

Of course, the idea of "Good old St. Nick" is not entirely foreign to us in our own cultural vocabulary and so it would seem to be a relatively straightforward matter to begin by re-emphasizing this, teaching our children that "Santa Claus" means St. Nicholas, moving away from the Coca-cola images and re-asserting a picture of St. Nicholas as he is still affirmed within parts of Northern Europe -- an image (see above) that has a clear relationship to and familiarity with the now predominant secular image of "Santa Claus", thereby making the process of teaching and re-identification that much easier. By re-affirming the episcopal and saintly figure of St. Nicholas, we can then more easily refocus Christmas back upon the Nativity of Our Lord as well.

So how might this be done? Many times I have seen images of the saint for Christmas decorations which more clearly relate to the saintly and episcopal reality of the figure. One idea therefore might be to acquire those things as part of your festal decorations to help in this re-education (and let's recall how important and formative visual reminders are in this regard). In so doing, you are working within the context of a very familiar culturally iconic figure, but clearly re-orienting that figure.

Of course we should also supplement this with other forms of teaching as well. In view of that, another idea would be to tie into the liturgical year of the Church by keeping St. Nicholas Day itself. This might involve a short reading of the saints life to your children that day, or even the vigil of the day, perhaps giving them a different holy card of the saint each year, or bringing forward the custom of traditional treats to mark the saints day. This creates memories and family traditions which will be very powerful, and will also provide you with teaching moments at the same time. Customs and traditions are extraordinarily powerful, which is why the Church, in her wisdom, employs them herself and so we too should follow suit in our "domestic churches" -- our homes.

These are indeed small things, and certainly many more ideas could surely be pursued or suggested in this regard (and perhaps some of our readership would like to share their own ideas and experiences in the comments), but it seems to me that by these small things we can begin to refocus both ourselves and our families upon the Christian traditions and emphases of Christmas, moving away from the materialism and secularizing myths of the season which have grown in recent decades -- but all the while keeping rich customs and traditions that help enchant this time for children and adults alike, while keeping it connected to the Christ-child and the Church.

So with that, I wish you all a happy St. Nicholas Day today. Why not print off an image of the good saint today and find a life of the saint which you can read for yourself or particularly for your children?

Why not start today?

(Image from the St. Nicholas Center)

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