Happy Saint Nicholas Feast Day to you! I was planning on writing a little bit about observing Advent as a single person (mainly because a few friends have asked about my Advent wreath situation and I thought I could write my first DIY post), but first: St. Nicholas.
St. Nicholas is one of my favorite saints. I try to celebrate his feast in some way every year. This has involved big Italian dinners (justified by his remains being in Bari, Italy), shoe gift-giving, and weird “coin purse” pastries. (In attempting to live the Church year I generally just make appropriately shaped dessert treats for certain saints and occasions. There must be better ways.) This year my Catechism reading group is celebrating St. Lucy’s feast instead of St. Nicholas’s for our Advent party feast day, and my plans merely involve drinking a delicious old fashioned in his honor, but I wanted to write about him anyway.
He is such a good, subversive figure for the cultural season he’s slapped on in America. Don’t get me wrong, I can’t get too angry about pagan American Christmas. There are lots of things that fill me with righteous anger (which generally spirals into not-so-righteous anger); King Henry the VIII is high on that list (man I hate that guy), abuse, pity-induced cruelty, PT Cruisers. Christmas songs in October don’t get me all riled up in comparison. Some things about this time of year do make me sad, but most of the secular Christmas stuff either seems innocuous or a limited good—pretty much a Dickens novel. You can’t really hate Dickens. He’s silly, sentimental, limited to an ultimately fruitless humanism, but also a beginning of goodness. I can see a lot of people starting with Dickens (or Miracle on 34th Street) and going deeper. And seriously, an exclusive focus on familial love and generosity is the least of America’s problems. Choose your freaking battles.
But when I’m really on a role I start to see the Christmas fuss as some sort of sneaky public SECRET! Everybody gets so excited and sacrifices crazy time and money for a holiday that is so, so much more than they’ve ever imagined. They buy their trees and presents and all the while the Christ child grows close. It’s like they sense it and prepare for something they don’t even understand. That may be a fiction, but it’s a good one.
Saint Nicholas is like that. In my mind, I see his eyes burning behind every picture of rosy-cheeked, good ol’ St. Nick. Everybody markets the name and image of this guy in goofy, kitschy ways when he’s actually kind of scary. I think of him as a mix of Good King Wenceslas and Aslan—a weirdly jovial person you trust utterly and secretly want to hug, but who absolutely terrifies you at the same time. All the exploitation is kind of like poking a cuddly-looking grizzly bear. The real Saint Nicholas was a violent man. Maybe zealous is the word, but really he punched the heretic Arias in the face at the Council of Nicea. His passion for truth was met with an equal passion for God’s love expressed in acts of mercy. We get our creepy late night Santa Claus chimney visits from the story of Saint Nicholas tossing bags of money into the homes of families too poor to provide dowries for their daughters (hence the coin purse desserts). Instead of toy trains: a chance at life free from prostitution or other desperate means of survival! Saint Nicholas is a fiery figure of Truth and Goodness…wearing a pointy red hat.
He represents so many things that are great about the Church; obviously a passion for doctrine married to practical expressions of charity, but also the weird stuff—like relic miracles. Saint Nicholas is big in the Eastern Church, but he’s also been claimed by most of Europe in special ways. His remains are in Italy where they hang out oozing a liquid that has healing capabilities called manna or myrrh. Seriously, what? So weird. But he’s said to have raised a couple victims of a Sweeney Todd situation when he was alive; so, I guess pretty much anything is possible for saints.
So, if you haven’t thought about it, maybe you should ask Saint Nicholas to pray for you today. I know I could use his help to properly direct my passions and resources this Advent.