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On 6th December many people round the world will be celebrating the feast of St Nicholas. In popular culture St Nicholas may feature as a jovial, white-bearded man in a red outfit, possibly assisted by reindeer, or even elves, but definitely carrying a big bag of presents. In some countries 6th December is a big family festival – a time to be together and celebrate the family, and almost certainly to give each other gifts. In other traditions St Nicholas’ memory is celebrated with considerable solemnity, (which doesn’t mean the celebration is not also joyful), with special church services in his honour.

For these people, the memory of the original St Nicholas goes back to the fourth century where we find him as the bishop of the Christian community in Myra, now Demre in Turkey. He was known for his holiness, which was particularly characterised by a hugely compassionate heart – which led to great generosity and care for people in need. One of the most famous stories about him concerns a man who had fallen into poverty and had three unmarried daughters. The daughters, finding themselves destitute were on the point of entering prostitution in order to support themselves. According to the story, St Nicholas saved them by throwing bags of money through their windows on three successive nights. This is the origin of the bags of gold chocolate coins that we hang on our Christmas trees.

St Nicholas’ generosity has led to the tradition of giving presents in his memory, and this in turn has morphed into the whole present-giving tradition that has become so intrinsic to Christmas for most of us. It’s impossible to think of Christmas now without thinking of all the rituals and customs associated with giving each other gifts. Sometimes it’s small tokens of affection, sometimes something a bit more formal, and sometimes a real splurge with all kinds of financial, social and ecological implications, not altogether positive.

Leaving aside the huge commercial interest that has capitalised on this tradition and often turned it into a materialistic bonanza that appears to have absolutely nothing to do with the Christian message – how could the St Nicholas tradition of present-giving turned so easily into a Christmas tradition? Okay, 6th December is only 19 days away from Christmas, but that’s still far enough away to make them two quite separate festivals. There must be something about Christmas itself that makes present-giving appropriate.

John 3:16 tells us that God so loved the world that he gave his only begotten Son to us. Jesus comes into the world as a gift to humanity – a gift to rescue us from the blind alleys so graphically represented by consumerism, greed and destruction. In this beautiful season of Advent, we are invited to think of the many ways that Christ comes to us, both at Christmas and at the end of time when he will come to judge the whole world. Surely what he will be looking for more than anything at that judgement will be compassion, compassion that shows we have not received the gift of God’s grace for nothing, compassion that characterises the life of great saints like St Nicholas.

Mother Sarah

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