Monday, December 1, 2014

St. Nicholas Day, part 1

Since St. Nicholas Day may be an unusual day to celebrate for many of our readers, we've asked a couple of guest authors to share some perspectives and ideas with us.

This first post is written by Anne Kennedy, who writes the blog Preventing Grace.  She and her husband, who is the rector of an Anglican church in Binghamton, New York, are raising six children, and they have celebrated St. Nicholas Day as a family and as a church each year.  Here is her perspective on the traditions and truths of this feast day:

My associations with St. Nicholas are nearly as old as I am. I grew up in a tiny African village, surrounded by people who neither celebrated Christmas nor St. Nicholas, nor any western holiday, including birthdays. But there was a Dutch Missionary Nurse and so besides growing up with a plentiful supply of Dutch pancakes, I also developed a great affection for St. Nicholas and his feast day on December 6th.

There is, for the westerner, an immediate and terrible choice when considering The Feast of St. Nicholas. Are you going to conflate him with Santa Claus and Christmas or keep him separate? Certainly their origins are similar. If you keep them separate, how can you possibly explain the similarity between Saint Nick, with his big white beard and his sack full of lovely toys and St. Nicholas with his thin white beard, weather beaten face and sack of gold coins? You must have your answer ready for an inquiring and clever child who is extremely interested in every single detail and contradiction in your face and words.

"Santa Clause is a fairy," I always say to my dubious and concerned children. "St. Nicholas is a Saint." Slowly they've learned to swallow their questions and just put their shoes out on the evening of December 5th and then three weeks later, hang their stockings on December 24th. When they come back to report that St. Nicholas did not visit their friends, I ask whether or not their friends put their shoes out. "No? Well, then there was nowhere to put the chocolate and orange and so he had to just leave."

Those are the basics of a St. Nicholas Visitation at my house. An orange, some chocolates consisting mainly of gold coins and, when I can find a nice one, a chocolate "Saint Nicholas" (so what if it looks exactly like a Santa), and a small special item that fits in the shoe--a pocket knife for a little boy, perhaps, or a silver spoon for a young girl, or a little tiny doll for a little little girl. When I am in my right mind, I think and plan and scour the Internet for little treasures. When I am knocked back by life, I run out between December 4th and 5th rushing through the aisles of crowded box stores, looking for something, anything, small and wonderful. 

And then there's the Visitation of St. Nicholas to the church. He comes whatever Sunday is closest to the 6th, unannounced, banging on the sacristy door with his Shepherd's Staff, glorious in cope and miter, bearing a basket of oranges (but really clementines, which are dainty and perfect for little reaching hands) and gold coins. He is always well timed, right during the end of the announcements. The Announcement Giver, hearing the loud knock at the door, stops and says, "I wonder who that is?" and goes to the door and opens it and there he is! The children gasp and wonder. St. Nicholas is usually someone they haven't seen very often--not any of their fathers or Sunday school teachers, but a man, as tall and thin as possible, hopefully with a small well trimmed beard.  He comes in and announces his greeting "In the Name of the Lord Jesus, whom I served so long as a bishop, fighting off the wicked heresies of Arius, even with my own fists. Are there any children here?" he asks, "who would like a piece of chocolate?" And the children come rushing forward.

Over the last many years, as I've embraced a life of a sort of average American, teetering between the quiet anticipatory joy of Advent and the craziness of the Christmas rush that demands and requires the management of so many expectations, desires, and sheer brutish work, the Feast of St. Nicholas continues to be a brief moment of private, quiet celebratory joy. It stands out and apart from the craziness. It is unexpected and satisfying in the delight it produces. For me, it unites that past and the present, in a schmaltzy liturgical glory, and some years I even make pancakes.

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