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GROWING UP CATHOLIC | The heroic generosity of St. Nicholas

On the feast of St. Nicholas, I don’t settle for anything less than a bootful of chocolate coins. No oranges. No dried fruit. It’s chocolate coins or nothing. Growing up as a non-Catholic, my family never celebrated St. Nick, but now I’m all for it.

I’m sure you’ve all heard a priest like me go on and on from the pulpit about how it’s Advent and don’t fast forward straight to Christmas. The curmudgeonly Advent priest is a proud tradition in the Catholic Church. I always suspected priests were fighting a losing battle. That was until I discovered how beautiful Advent traditions are. Advent has St. Nicholas, St. Lucy, the Rorate Caeli Mass, the O Antiphons, lessons and carols, the wreath and candles and more. Advent is a penitential but joyful season. It’s easy to celebrate.

As a child, I’d occasionally heard of St. Nicholas in connection with Santa, but I didn’t know that he’s a real historical figure whose actions form the basis for the Christmas gift-giving tradition. My parents didn’t specifically have it out for St. Nicholas. They weren’t all that into Santa, either. They made clear that Santa is a fun part of Christmas, but he’s pretend. We were sternly warned to not break the news to our friends.

The fact is, Santa and St. Nicholas are hopelessly intertwined. Nicholas is associated with gift-giving and protecting children. After his death, his popularity increased, but he was buried in layers of fairy tales. The real man receded and the magical, north-pole-dwelling, elfish Santa Claus emerged. This is where the connection becomes tricky — one is real and the other is legend. Can we celebrate both and not confuse our children? Should we?

There’s no right answer, and it’s probably more important that whatever we decide, we take up our family traditions intentionally. The Church offers so many beautiful traditions that form our devotion and the rhythms of life, it would be a shame to jettison them for shallow, modern appropriations. Yet, it’s possible for children to celebrate both Santa and St. Nicholas without allowing fantastical Santa legends to crowd out St. Nicholas and his heroically generous life. In our family, we make the distinction that St. Nicholas is real and Santa is make-believe. The kids are fine and benefit from the clarity. Children are actually great at pretending and still have a great time with Santa.

Without confusing the two, we want the children to see the connection. One man changed the world through his generosity, and Santa is an homage to St. Nicholas. The attributes of Santa we love — his generosity, the miraculous nature of his gifts, the way he takes children seriously — all come from Nicholas.

There are myriad ways to approach the question, but hopefully, none of us lose sleep over it. After all, Christmas is a time of generosity, and we can make room in our hearts for both. At the beginning of Advent, we celebrate St. Nicholas and feast on chocolate coins. Later this month, we’ll set up our nativity, Christmas tree and maybe watch a Santa movie or two.

Father Michael Rennier is vice-rector of the Oratory of Sts. Gregory and Augustine. A former Anglican priest, he was ordained in 2016 under a pastoral provision. He and his wife, Amber, have six children.

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