December 6, 2016 is not only Tuesday in Advent 2 (or Advent 5 if you are keeping Extended Advent). It is also the Feast of Nicholas, Bishop of Myra.
Yes, Saint Nicholas.
Or, Saint Nick, as some refer to a more popularized version of him today.
Saint Nicholas was the actual 4th century Christian bishop in a coastal town in Turkey upon whom the "legendary" character of Santa Claus was based.
The real "Saint Nick" did not ride a team of reindeer around Myra on Christmas Eve distributing toys to "all the good little girls and boys."
But he was known for his care for children in the community, and especially for taking action to prevent children from being sold into slavery or prostitution so their families, or the children themselves, could survive.
The painting above depicts one such story. A merchant in Myra could not afford to pay dowry for his daughters. Nor could he afford to keep them in his household. Selling them into prostitution appeared to be the only way for them, and him, to survive. Nicholas intervened, making sure the family had sufficient funds to afford the dowry.
The stories and paintings depict Nicholas himself tossing gold balls or gold bars into the window of the family's house by night to avoid detection. It is more likely deacons in the church heard about the situation, informed Bishop Nicholas, and together the deacons and the bishop arranged for this family, and no doubt many others, to be cared for with funds collected through the weekly communion offering.
Still, the point is clear: Nicholas was especially known for caring for children and families living on the edge.
A Family Story
As my wife and I were raising our two sons, we wanted to give them more of a connection to the real Saint Nicholas, the one known for caring for children in need, than the consumer-driven Santa Claus portrayed so widely in US culture during Advent and Christmas Season.
We decided to do this by keeping St. Nicholas Day, December 6, as a family.
Observing St. Nicholas Day for us meant developing a series of family traditions. Our boys would wake up to stockings filled with nuts and chocolates. We'd share a family breakfast together. Then we'd go somewhere where we could directly serve with or for poor children and families in our community. One thing we found even our smallest child could do was ring bells with Salvation Army. Over lunch we'd compose parodies of secular Christmas songs (something we all enjoyed doing) that we'd send to families and friends. After that, we'd go shopping for gifts for others, both family members and a family we would sponsor. Part of that shopping trip was picking up a Christmas video we'd watch that afternoon or evening together, and usually one about Santa Claus. And that evening we'd put up our Christmas tree. So we did not completely divorce St. Nicholas from Santa Claus and Christmas. Instead, we invested Santa Claus with the story of the Christian bishop and saint, whose care for the poor and children we'd been practicing throughout the day.
As time went on, and both our children's school schedules and our work schedules became more hectic, it became impossible to celebrate the full day as we had when they were younger. Some years, it meant we'd "transfer" our observance to the weekend. Eventually, we simply couldn't do much of it at all.
But the good memories of it remain.
A Saint Nicholas Feast for Your Congregation
As we've noted above, this year, 2016, Saint Nicholas Day falls on a Tuesday. Perhaps you might consider using this occasion to help your congregation keep Saint Nicholas Day this coming Sunday (December 4).
Here are some suggestions for doing this, based on our family's experience. Feel free to adapt this as may make the most sense in your context.
1. Host an actual feast after worship on December 6. Decorate the space with images of the real Saint Nicholas (you can find many on the Internet), or symbols, like balls of gold, that help remind of his story. As part of the feast, invite youth to research and then creatively tell or dramatize some stories of the real Saint Nicholas.
2. Give stocking filled with appropriate snacks and perhaps small gifts to all of the children present.
3. Schedule activities either at the church or in the community (Salvation Army bell-ringing is a great way to do this!) that enable whole families, including young children, to participate in helping others in need.
4. Set apart set hours for shopping for simple and useful gifts for-- or better with!-- children in families in need.
5. Gather again at the church in the evening for cider and sandwiches, and hear the stories about what folks did and learned, and especially the stories of the children.
6. Consider whether you might want to decorate your church's Christmas Tree together as part of this event-- or at least put it up, and maybe put some lights and some gold balls on it.
Share What You Did
My family's Saint Nicholas Day practices certainly were a significant time of bonding, good memories, and hands on mission for us as our boys were growing up. I think hosting something like the Saint Nicholas Day Feast I've described above could be for your congregation, too.
A Saint Nicholas Day Feast could feed bodies, minds and souls both in your church and your community. It can teach about the Christian saint. It can help folks create an experiential connection with to the biblical themes of the day and of Advent. And, perhaps above all, it can provide an occasion for the church family to gather and serve across generations, and have some fun with it, too!
If your congregation tries a Saint Nicholas Feast this year, I invite you to share what you did and what you learned in the comments on this blog.