I never celebrated—or even knew about—Saint Nicholas Day until I met my wife, but it is now one of my favorite holiday traditions. Observed more widely in Europe, especially Eastern Europe, December 6 is the day that Saint Nicholas comes to give presents—or coal—to the hopeful who put their boots outside. Don’t worry, you still have time to put yours out for tonight!
The celebration originated in the feast day of Saint Nicholas of Myra—a fourth-century bishop nicknamed the Wonder-worker who was known for secret charity to those shunned by “reputable society” (such as prostitutes, thieves, and sailors), and for helping those experiencing poverty, especially young women. But the day’s traditions, and the figure at the heart of it, soon gained an imaginative life of its own outside of the ecclesiastical calendar.
The myths surrounding this secret gift-giver adapted to different cultures and found new faces over the centuries (transforming from the dark-skinned Saint Nicholas to the rosy-cheeked Santa Claus and Father Christmas). However, two core elements remained: selfless compassion, and acts that bring about an almost mischievous, joyful surprise. The original stories surrounding Saint Nicholas are full of these. In one, he secretly tossed bags of gold into a house of an impoverished family over three consecutive nights to help their three daughters (the bags of gold are now represented by the oranges that sometimes fill Christmas stockings). In another story, a terrible storm was sure to destroy the ship on which he traveled and drown all the sailors. In an unexpected turn of events, he rebuked the waves, and all lived to see the shore. In yet another story, three innocent men were about to be executed, but he appeared, pushed the executioner’s blade away, and chastised a juror who had been bribed. What all these stories have in common for me is the power of unexpected wonder and joy—imagine waking up and finding your life utterly transformed with a bag of gold. Imagine the waves crashing—or the executioner’s blade swinging—only to stop, and you realize that your life is saved.
For me, Saint Nicholas Day is a reminder to bring some of that inspirational wonder-working and playful compassion to my daily life and interactions. While our dear Saint Vincent lived more than a millennia after Saint Nicholas, you can see something Vincentian about Saint Nicholas’s attention to the poor and helping the hungry, even if his efforts lacked our namesake’s organizational prowess (and critical collaboration with Saint Louise). Our mission—much like Saint Nick’s—is vital and needed in our world. But we need joyful sustenance to carry it forward and not be overcome by the waves and storms of the times.
What are some ways that you can bring playful, supportive, unexpected joy to your colleagues?[i]
Reflection by: Alex Perry, Program Manager, Division of Mission and Ministry
[i] Vincent said, “Another effect of charity is to rejoice with those who rejoice. It causes us to enter into their joy. Our Lord intended by His teachings to unite us in one mind and in joy as well as in sorrow; it’s His desire that we share one another’s feelings.” Conference 207, “Charity (Common Rules, Chap. II, Art. 12),” 30 May 1659, CCD, 12:222. Available at: https://via.library.depaul.edu/vincentian_ebooks/36/.
Reminder: We will be hosting (virtually and in-person) a festive Day with Vincent on December 15 titled “Inspired by Joy.” Fill your reservoir before the holiday break with a morning retreat grounded in our mission and focused on reconnecting to what brings you joy. You can register and learn more here: https://december-day-with-vincent.eventbrite.com