Today (Dec. 6) is the feast day of St. Nicholas. Jolly Old St. Nick, or Santa Claus, was a Greek bishop who lived in Myra, Lycia, and was known for great charity — but his charity was made possible thanks to the wealth of his parents which he inherited at a young age when they died. From Eugene Peterson’s essay in “God with us: Rediscovering the Meaning of Christmas”:
Nicholas is most well known in the West as the beloved patron saint of children and gift-giving. His connection to the American character of Santa Claus is faint, but it can be traced. According to tradition, Nicholas’ parents died when he was young, leaving him a large sum of money. With his inheritance, Nicholas practiced charity, helping those in need.
One legend in particular illustrates his generosity: a family in his community was desperate; the father had lost all of his money and had been unable to find husbands for his three daughters. The daughters were in danger of being given over to prostitution or another form of degradation when, one night, Nicholas appeared at their home. He tossed three bags of gold into the open window (or down the chimney, in some versions)-thereby saving them from a terrible fate. This tale is probably the source of his eventual connection to the tradition of gift giving at Christmas.
Contemporary politics tends to view inherited wealth negatively — St. Nick didn’t earn his great wealth! — but this wealth enabled him to do great works.
Also noteworthy from Peterson’s essay:
Aside from the obvious disparities between Saint Nicholas and the secular Santa Claus, perhaps the most poignant difference between them can be seen in the nature of the gifts they give. While Santa has his bundle of toys, the gift that Saint Nicholas gives is nothing short of freedom from poverty and desperation. The life of Saint Nicholas is an example of faith made flesh in actions of true charity.
I emphasize that line because of how it illustrates the efforts of a wealthy man to ensure the economic freedom of those less fortunate. At a time when the Occupy Wall Street movement is protesting the One Percent, it’s important to consider the contributions to society that One Percent makes. St. Nick was once among them.
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