Tuesday, December 6, 2016

The Gifts of St. Nicholas and Others

Yesterday at work was the day to get back to the every day and every month work of running a school:  classes to think about staffing, a department chair to try to hire, faculty development trainings to schedule, faculty files to get into shape.

But it's December, and there was also a Secret Santa program offered.  I'm hoping to avoid that.  It seems Scrooge-like, I know.  And on the day before the feast day of Saint Nicholas.

I had a friend in grad school who celebrated Saint Nicholas Day by having each family member open one present on the night of Dec. 6. It was the first I had heard of the feast day, but I was enchanted.
Still, I don't do much with this feast day--if I had children or gift-giving friends, I might, but most years, I simply pause to remember the historical origins of the saint and the day.

It's always a bit of a surprise to realize that Saint Nicholas was a real person. But indeed he was. In the fourth century, he lived in Myra, then part of Greece, now part of Turkey; eventually, he became Bishop of Myra. He became known for his habit of gift giving and miracle working, although it's hard to know what really happened and what's become folklore. Some of his gift giving is minor, like leaving coins in shoes that were left out for him. Some were more major, like resurrecting three boys killed by a butcher.

My favorite story is the one of the poor man with three children who had no dowry for them.  No dowry meant no marriage, and so, they were going to have to become prostitutes. In the dead of night, Nicholas threw a bag of gold into the house. Some legends have that he left a bag of gold for each daughter that night, while some say that he gave the gold on successive nights, while some say that he gave the gold as each girl came to marrying age.

How did we get from these stories to our current Santa Clause?  The question that interests me more is how we got from these stories to Santa Clause to the current buying frenzies that consume many of our Christmases.

Last night, I got the kind of gift I much prefer.  We headed over to a friend's house where my spouse gives a violin lesson to the daughter, and then we linger for wine and cheese and other goodies.  We spend an hour or two catching up.  Last night was especially restorative.

This morning, I've had trouble sleeping.  I've been awake since 1:30.  But in a way, that was a gift too.  I had time to read and time to write--and it was productive!  It was so productive that I decided to postpone working on grading for my online classes.

Let me end with another little-known fact:  Saint Nicholas is also the patron saint of sailors, who used to leave each other by saying "May Saint Nicholas hold the tiller!"

Here's hoping that Saint Nicholas holds the tiller on whatever ships are bringing us joy this December.

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