Not much honoured in Anglo countries, and perhaps especially not among Anglo Protestants, St Nicholas is the bedrock on which the modern tradition of Father Christmas or Santa Claus rests. Nicholas was Bishop of Myra, a port in southern Turkey, in the early 4th century. He probably attended the Council of Nicaea in 325, which rebutted the teaching of Arius and affirmed the full divinity of Jesus.
Not that much is known with any certainty about the life of Nicholas. It would be good to know more, but the stories of the acts of his life tell of the great confidence the people of his time, and later, had in him, and in the power of God shown through him. I don’t suppose contemporaries or those who venerated him in the decades and centuries after his death necessarily believed that every single story that was told happened as a matter of literal historical fact. But they believed in the power of God, and in the holiness of Nicholas – and developed tales which spoke of that belief in a mighty God, and a godly bishop. His popularity is attested both in the way his relics was spirited away from Myra and established in a shrine at Bari in southern Italy, and in the number of different groups for which is claimed as patron saint (variously, sailors, merchants, archers, repentant thieves, children, brewers, pawnbrokers, and students.
To the extent that he is remembered at all, it is often for the story of three young women from a poor family. Unable to marry without a dowry, they faced a bleak future: slavery or prostitution. But the godly Nicholas, doing his good deeds in secret, donates three purses of gold coins, perhaps on successive nights, perhaps being found in stockings left out to dry. The money was sufficient to change the destiny of those young woman.
Probably the tradition of Christmas gift-giving rests in the gifts bought to Jesus by the three wise men. Jesus had no need of gold, frankincense or myrrh, but they were gifts of reverence and full of symbolism – given to the one who would be king, priest, and suffering servant. The gifts of St Nicholas, by contrast, were for an explicit charitable purpose – offered to that struggling family, but in doing so for the “one of the least of these my brethren” done also for Jesus.
In our day, in our society, marriage is not the only path to a reasonably secure (economic) life, for young women (or for young men) from ordinary backgrounds. And dowries are not part of modern Western custom. So the story of the gift of St Nicholas can lose its power when told today. It shouldn’t. The acts of the people of God can make a profound difference to lives.
And marriage should remain an integral part of how we teach young people to live – not just a choice, for those it happens to suit. For most, it is good for them to marry, and it is good for wider society, and for the next generation. And it typically provides a degree of economic security that for many is not attainable otherwise, and as a backdrop for the raising of children it remains unparalleled.
Debates around same-sex “marriage” matter, and matter a lot, but most young people are heterosexual. And how often in our churches are people taught that marriage is the institution in which God intends most of us to live much of our lives? I can’t remember the last sermon I heard in a New Zealand church, encouraging young people to think of preparing, practically and prayerfully, to be married, or encouraging the older members of the congregation to help their children on that pathway. Perhaps it is done in youth groups, but what is said from the pulpit reveals what churches and their leaders really think matters.
It can be tough for those who want to marry and can’t find a husband/wife – I wasn’t married until 36 myself, and so know whereof I speak – but it isn’t an excuse for a laissez-faire approach from the church and church leaders. Perhaps there might even be a place for more active matchmaking – the wise discernment of the elders of our communities. When pushed on the defensive we proclaim the importance of Christian marriage, but do we live as if we believe it? It is as if once the economic imperatives to marry lessened a little, the church had no real answer to the question “how then shall we live?”
I thank God for the example of St Nicholas – one of the cloud of witnesses who surround us as we make our way through a life of faith and discipleship. And let us pray that God will raise up leaders in our day who in time will be venerated in the way Nicholas for centuries was. The stories and traditions will differ. But the God who came in Jesus, and whose coming we await, is the same as ever.