Saint Nicholas Day (December 6) was the traditional day for giving gifts to children. It is still the day on which children receive gifts from St. Nicholas in the Netherlands. Epiphany (January 6) is, in the western Church, the commemoration of day on which the three kings presented the baby Jesus with gifts.
Saint Nicholas was the bishop of Myra in Lycia, which is in modern Turkey, sometime before AD 350. Nothing is known of his life except for the legends that have built up around him, but he was associated with kindness to children. He was a widely admired saint throughout the eastern and western churches. The Dutch custom of giving presents to children on St. Nicholas Day was brought to America by early Dutch settlers in New Amsterdam, which was renamed New York when the British took over the colony. Santa Claus is the American pronunciation of Sinter Klaas, which was colloquial Dutch for Saint Nicholas.
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During World War II it was necessary for Americans to mail Christmas gifts early for the troops in Europe to receive them in time. Merchants joined in the effort to remind the public to shop and mail early and the protracted shopping season was born. Since those days, retail merchants have been hard at work to escalate our retail observances this time of year. Accordingly, we shop longer and buy more than ever before. Retailers have taken the gift motif from Saint Nicholas’ Day and Epiphany and have used the combination to supplant the meaning of Christmas. They have instituted a secular sacrament of shopping, which pays no attention at all to the arrival of the Giver who gave His all. They call it a season for giving, and with that laudable slogan have lured us into a time of great expectations, huge let-downs, and lascivious acquisitiveness. They could not have done this without our full cooperation—for instead of celebrating the arrival of our salvation, we jump with glee and clap our hands at the arrival of the UPS truck!
Truly, we have a form of giving, but not the spirit thereof.
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Poor Jesus! For on His birthday we give earrings to Mother and slippers to Dad and a bicycle to Junior, but nothing to Him. We yearn for possessions, and not for Him. We seek out appropriate gifts for all our loved ones except for Him for whom we can shop without money or credit cards or lay-away plan. Some of us no longer even give Him lip service, lest someone think we are too religious.
Jesus once spoke of a person taking good things and bad things from a storehouse. At this time of the year, we become that person, taking good things and bad things from our historic Christian heritage. We cannot simply reject or embrace everything that is there: we must discern what is good and reject what is bad. We do not want to end up with ‘bah humbug’ attitude of the Puritans, nor do we wish to tacky up our homes with decorations until truckers stop and ask if Jolene is working this shift. Neither extreme is desirable. Christmas is a jumble of good things and bad things, and we must be discerning.
Think of our nominal birthday boy this year. If anyone can have compassion on people who are plagued with holiday blues, it certainly must be Jesus on His birthday. This year, let Him be the guest of honor at your party.
Source: Christmas Facts, Ken Collins
Image: St. Nicholas "Lipensky" (Russian icon from Lipnya Church of St. Nicholas in Novgorod)
© 2013, copyright Thomas MacEntee