While there are many variations of the story of St. Nicholas told through books, websites, movies and legend, the basic background of the story that I have grown up with and continue to share with my children in increasing detail as they grow older is this......
One story tells of a poor man with three daughters. In those days a young woman's father had to offer prospective husbands something of value—a dowry. The larger the dowry, the better the chance that a young woman would find a good husband. Without a dowry, a woman was unlikely to marry. This poor man's daughters, without dowries, were therefore destined to be sold into slavery. Mysteriously, on three different occasions, a bag of gold appeared in their home-providing the needed dowries. The bags of gold, tossed through an open window, are said to have landed in stockings or shoes left before the fire to dry. This led to the custom of children hanging stockings or putting out shoes, eagerly awaiting gifts from Saint Nicholas. Sometimes the story is told with gold balls instead of bags of gold. That is why three gold balls, sometimes represented as oranges, are one of the symbols for St. Nicholas. And so St. Nicholas is a gift-giver. story credit
There are so many traditions throughout the world and activities and fun things to do to help your kids at any age understand the story and tradition of St. Nicholas, but of all the things I've seen this website is my favorite.
Now comes the big questions. How did we decide to partake of this tradition? What does it look like to celebrate it? What do we do on Christmas?? All of these are important and are going to look totally different for every family, so here's our answers in a nutshell.....
Christmas is a celebration of the birth of Jesus. A celebration that is completely detracted from by the giving and receiving of gifts. The tradition of Santa Claus is (in my opinion) a commercialized perversion of the really awesome story of who St. Nicholas really was. Culture has twisted Santa into the focus of Christmas and we put a lot of emphasis on trying to get our children to believe in a person who comes on Christmas who is untrue, while glossing over another person who comes on Christmas, who is true! Seems a bit off when you think about it in those terms. So with that realization in our family, which coincidentally coincided with the same year that we began to think about Christmas different in general with Advent Conspiracy, we decided to move the gifting aspect of Christmas to fall on St. Nicholas Day, December 6th. My family growing up had always celebrated St. Nicholas Day as well so for me it was an easy jump to make. It is the transition of what Christmas morning looks like that has been more of a challenge for our family.
For St. Nicholas Day the kids put out their shoes on December 5th and in the morning they find gifts in or around their shoes. (And they know full well that the surprises come from us and not from St. Nicholas himself.) However, as our desire to give more relationally and compassionately at this time of year has grown we have altered the kinds of gifts given on St. Nicholas Day. Instead of finding a toy or book or treat specifically geared toward themselves, they instead will find things that can be shared and enjoyed by them all, things that will build upon their relationships with one another or with us, or of course things that are handmade either by me or by one of their siblings. Generally there is one gift per shoe and usually a few little yummy treats and often a new Christmas book to add to the family collection that rests beneath our Christmas tree. They will also always find a note, either one for them all collectively or each individually in their shoe (depending on organized I am that year) reminding them of how much we love them, how much God loves them and how special they are to our family. Regardless of what the specific gifts are, in general very little money is spent on them. Finding gifts to fit these parameters is not always easy and requires a bit of creativity and conviction to really hold ourselves to it.
It is the tradition of St. Nicholas Day in many cultures that children will find treats of small gifts, fruit or nuts, and special Nicholas candies and cookies. St. Nicholas gifts, in the tradition of the story of St. Nicholas, are meant to be shared and not hoarded for oneself.
For practical purposes, we are not attached to the date of December 6th. This year we are planning to celebrate on the 5th so that Jeremy can be home and take part and so that we can celebrate with a relaxing morning of a big breakfast and being together. However, I'll be honest, it is entirely possible that I am still a bit disorganized and we move our celebration to the following weekend.
Christmas Day for us is usually spent with church and family and lots of food. The year that we weren't able to be with family we were blessed to fill our day with friends who hold the same values for their family at Christmas and I hope this year for us will be the same. There are certainly gifts from grandparents and other family that we navigate each year and when possible open those gifts on a day other than Christmas. However, our family has become increasingly supportive in our desire for them to give gifts to the kids that encourage relational values. In my opinion those are acceptable and enjoyable things for Christmas Day. No matter how the specifics of Christmas Day play out, it is our ultimate goal that the day is spent worshiping Christ and that the events and festivities would center around that and keep our focus on Him alone.
As we grow in our faith and as our children grow in age our traditions shift and evolve with each passing year. I would love to find an opportunity to serve in the community on or around St. Nicholas Day as a family down the road. I would also love to say that I am not tempted by the desire at this time of year to buy unnecessary things for the kids and for friends and family. I have found it very encouraging and helpful to share our thoughts and conviction on how Christmas should be celebrated with friends and family and draw from their support and experiences in teaching our children about how we celebrate this time of year.
As we look at the world around us and at the message that Christ's birth brings I am reminded of that gift which changed the world so many years ago and I am hopeful that my family can recognize the opportunity we have now to continue making a difference in our own small way.
Do you celebrate St. Nicholas Day in place of gifts on Christmas? What are your traditions at this time of year to remember the birth of Christ?