Saint Nicholas is historic figure

Published 3:45 pm Tuesday, December 24, 2019

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Lights came on early this morning around the world, but especially in this great United States of Stuff. For here, more than anywhere, children have been encouraged to believe — and have, indeed, come to believe — that Christmas is largely Santa-centered.


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Of course, there are Christian families throughout the land who have celebrated Advent in their churches this month. Many of them gathered to hear the Christmas story last evening, and many still find in a starlit night the wonder that greeted shepherds two millennia ago.


But while the number of practicing Christians has declined — and make no mistake, that number has declined — that decline has done nothing to diminish the secularized spirit of the season, and while some retailers pay token homage to the Nativity, most bet on the more glamorous and profitable aspects of gift giving and celebration.


Why, we’ve even extended the season to at least the day after Thanksgiving (Black Friday) in order to give retail businesses a longer period to attract customers, a greater opportunity to turn a profit. Some sales even begin on Thanksgiving Day, thus diminishing one religious holiday while trampling on the religious origins of the next.


Oh, I still love Christmas, as anyone who has read the Short Rows over the years will attest. I still read “The Night Before Christmas” each Christmas Eve to whatever grandchildren are still inclined to listen, though I must say the number is rapidly declining as they grow older.


And we love the family gatherings that have become an important part of our Christmas Eve at home. But the memories of Christmases past that are most poignant are of “Silent Night” sung in a candlelit sanctuary among fellow church members, of late night services celebrating the arrival of a babe, traditionally at midnight.


Santa Claus has his place and I am forever a defender of the spirit engendered by Saint Nicholas, who lived in the 3rd century. Nicholas was orphaned at a young age and inherited his parents’ considerable wealth. A devout Christmas, he obeyed Jesus’ words to “sell what you own and give the money to the poor.” His entire life was devoted to helping the needy, the sick and the suffering, and he was especially kind to children.


Nicholas’s generosity and resulting popularity among the people of Asia Minor drew the ire of the Roman emperor, Diocletian, a ruthless persecutor of Christians. He had Nicholas exiled and thrown in prison. Eventually released, he continued to labor in the emerging Roman church and was canonized some time after his death.


Saint Nicholas is hardly the image that Coca Cola has attached to Santa Claus, but he was, as we would say, the Real McCoy, and embodied the spirit of giving that more accurately touches on the greatest gift of all — the gift to man of God’s only son.