A Simpler Christmas with St. Nick
For many parents, the approaching Christmas season brings more stress than joy.
As soon as Halloween candy starts leaving the shelves, Christmas displays roll in with reminders of all we need to plan, do, and buy to make yuletide magic. Traditions meant to express a spirit of giving and gathering turn into festive obligations packed into a short few weeks leading up to the grand finale on December 25.
I do love Christmas as it’s meant to be. For me, that means joyful anticipation and celebration of Christ’s birth.
I long for an unrushed unwrapping of the nativity scene, the house smelling of ginger cookies that will be delivered to neighbors. I imagine evenings filled with storytelling, hot cider or mulled wine, tree decorating, holiday lights, and Christmas carols.
But as my children grew, the burden of holiday expectations grew too, until it became a time of year I almost dreaded.
Gift-giving, and finding balance between generosity, greediness, and going broke, was the biggest challenge that led us to seek a new way to do things.
Disenchanted by Santa
American Christmas commercialism culture is dominated by stories about a jolly guy who flies around the world delivering gifts. Many movies sport a plot to “save Christmas” by fixing whatever obstacle might stop Santa Claus from distributing his presents. The real delivery here is the message that Christmas without gobs of gifts is ruined.
Even more unsettling is the notion that the gifts must be earned by our good behavior. The ever-present nature of Mr. Claus sounded a wee bit menacing when we heard our bright-eyed toddlers sing along, “...he knows if you’ve been bad or good, so be good for goodness’ sake.”
It wasn’t long before our children’s logical little minds questioned the physics of time travel and the chimney-centric gift delivery system. Our attempts to explain all this increasingly made the mythical man sound more absurd than magical.
Discovering St. Nick
So I was in this frustrated frame of mind when a simple search for cultural traditions gave me answers to my Christmas questions.
When our oldest child was in kindergarten, I volunteered to help organize a classroom Christmas party. I decided I would like to introduce the children to traditions from around the world. Since my husband’s heritage is almost 100% Dutch, I started by looking up holiday traditions in the Netherlands.
And then it all clicked into place.
In the midst of my search for coloring pages depicting Holland Christmas traditions, I rushed to my husband, and confronted him, “Did you know it the whole time? Did you know Santa Claus evolved from St. Nicholas, a real guy?!”
Indeed, he wasn’t keeping anything from me; he only knew vaguely of St. Nick, and had never celebrated the European traditions. But he was as intrigued as I was.
How had I never heard this? The origins of Santa Claus seem so obvious when you look deeper into it.
Sinterklaas = Dutch for St. Nicholas
Sint = saint
Klaas = nickname for Nikolaas
Sinterklaas, aka Santa Claus, became part of North American Christmas culture with the arrival of Dutch settlers in the late 18th century. Reportedly in 1773, Dutch families gathered to honor the anniversary of the death of St. Nicholas.
The 1822 poem now known as “Twas the Night Before Christmas” helped shape him into the iconic jolly elf version we know today.
In contrast to the commercialized Claus, the true original story fit into our understanding of the meaning of Christmas, and helped us shape new family traditions that felt more authentically us.
Why celebrating St. Nick simplifies our Christmas
#1: Inspired by a true story
I do believe in wonder and delight and magic at Christmastime. Please understand that I am all for parents choosing whatever celebrations and traditions feel the best for their family.
But for me, it was exhausting to wrestle with just how far to carry the Santa story. It was disheartening to think that one day their magic bubble could burst, and then what? Would they suspect other stories I had told them were untrue?
So it came as a relief to me to tell my kids that yes, St. Nicholas was a real guy. Simply put, he was a regular person like the rest of us, but one who can inspire us by the way he served God and generously gave to those in need.
Nicholas was born in Lycia (present-day Turkey) during the time of the Roman Empire. He was born to wealthy parents who died of a plague while he was still young. Nicholas became ordained for the priesthood at a young age and was extremely generous with his inherited earthly possessions.
One well-known story tells of a poor family who had no money to provide dowries for their three daughters. Without a dowry in those days, the daughters could not marry and would be destined for a life of servitude. Nicholas passed by their house at night and threw bags of gold in the window, which are said to have landed in their shoes or their stockings which would be hung to dry.
This story is the inspiration for Christmas stockings, and for the Dutch tradition of leaving shoes out for St. Nick, which will be filled with treats including gold foil-wrapped chocolate coins.
Nicholas became Bishop of Myra in the 4th century. He was allegedly tortured and imprisoned during the persecution of Christians by Roman emperor Dicletian. By all accounts, Nicholas stayed strong in his faith and showed special kindness towards the vulnerable populations in his society.
Of course stories from so long ago are hard to verify, and some of the stories of Nicholas’ miracles sound more like legend than fact. I’m under no illusion that Saint Nicholas was perfect. Our Christian beliefs teach the sainthood of all believers, meaning all who believe in God are set apart for His purposes in the world. Imperfect, yet forgiven and made pure.
So in my opinion, Nicholas’ sainthood and reported miracles are of very little importance in the story. What matters is that he was a real person who loved God and put his faith into action. He never wanted notoriety or credit for his generous acts, but inspired beautiful traditions that have lasted for generations.
#2: Giving from the heart
An endless frustration for me when my kids were little was fighting our culture’s focus on getting more stuff for Christmas.
Questions most often asked of my children in December: “Have you made your list for Santa yet?” or “Are you being a good boy so Santa will bring you something nice?”
And after they returned to school in January, the first question, even from teachers, was, “What did you get for Christmas?”
These questions just highlighted the things I disliked the most about the holiday season: endless lists, frenzied shoppers, aggressive ads, comparisons and competition.
What is Christmas spirit, anyway? Isn’t it inspired by God’s gift of his son, the Christ child? That good and undeserved gift for the whole world doesn’t match up with Santa bringing gifts based on an arbitrary measure of our good behavior.
I guess we don’t trust free gifts. Somehow as humans we need to balance rewards with punishment. We end up using gift-giving as a behavior modification system.
If you look into the European traditions surrounding Saint Nicholas, you’ll find some truly disturbing characters (Zwarte Piet and Krampus, for example) who threaten punishment for children who have misbehaved. These scary guys make a lump of coal from Santa look like a treat.
Leaving these over-the-top Christmas characters behind, we can focus on a spirit of giving sparked by gratefulness instead of fear.
When we feel grateful for what we’ve already been given, we want to give out of that abundance. This doesn’t mean that we can’t find joy in receiving gifts. It just means that getting stuff is not the point of Christmas. Christmas without gifts is not ruined.
Sometimes this twist in focus starts with a simple question: “What are you most excited to give away this Christmas?”
#3: Slowing down to savor Advent
St. Nicholas died on December 6, probably in the year 345. Traditionally, his feast day is celebrated in Europe on December 5 and 6.
When I learned this, it gave me an idea that would solve some of our holiday challenges.
The first challenge: how to build our own family traditions.
When David and I married, we lived in a separate state from both our sets of parents. So we started visiting different homes in alternating years. As our kids came along, they looked forward to our road trip to Colorado grandparents one year, and to Michigan grandparents the next.
So we were folding in to the traditions of our families of origin, but never really doing our own thing. And the big logistical question was whether it made sense to haul our gifts all the way to Colorado (a 17-hour drive) and back again.
The thought of a December 6 St. Nick’s Day celebration was a big Aha! moment for me.
What if we had our own family celebration on December 6, separate from the hubbub of Christmas morning? What if we shared an early mini Christmas on a quiet morning, with hot cocoa, coffee cake, and simple gifts?
We could create our own order for how the day goes: wake up late, discover St. Nick chocolate coins in our shoes, eat breakfast on Christmas china plates by candlelight, and open presents at our own pace.
The second challenge: how to actually enjoy the Christmas season.
Fast pacing and high expectations are the greatest stressors of the holiday season. A December 6 celebration would provide the added benefit of stretching out the timeline of Christmas preparations.
Advent on the church calendar is the season of anticipation leading up to Christ’s birth. It starts four Sundays before Christmas, which is basically the same time the shopping madness and holiday party gauntlet begins.
Slowing down to enjoy the Advent season with a spirit of joyful anticipation is nearly impossible for most parents who are also burdened by long lists of things to do and buy.
I found that our new focus on December 6 helped me avoid getting swept up in the usual holiday panic. Basically, this new timeline forced me to start preparing weeks earlier than I normally would. And having more time for intentional thought about each gift and event went a long way to bringing back the joy.
For me, this looked like this:
Setting a date with my husband in the fall for detailed holiday planning.
Keeping gifts simple and budget-appropriate. (We put a focus on family bonding events and being together, so we are willing to spend big on travel expenses and outings.)
Making a commitment to myself to purchase and wrap gifts before Thanksgiving.
Getting the Christmas tree up by December 1.
St. Nick’s Day started as a fun way to add on a new family tradition as a nod to my husband’s Dutch heritage. But it ended up casting a whole new light on the why, when, and how of our Christmas celebration.
The great thing about family traditions is that it’s never too late to start new ones or to modify old ones. We will continue to learn and grow and simplify as time goes on and new family members are added in.
May we all celebrate in a way that brings our households peace, joy, and family togetherness.
A few books that add to the St. Nicholas story:
The Saint Nicholas Secret by Dennis E. Engleman
The Legend of St. Nicholas by Dandi Daley Mackall
The Miracle of Saint Nicholas by Gloria Whelan
Saint Nicholas: The Real Story of the Christmas Legend by Julie Stiegemeyer