Though it’s technically the celebration of the birth of Jesus Christ for Christians, many traditions merge to form what we call Christmas.
Some traditions are indeed Christian but others aren’t. Some date from eras before Jesus was born and some are more recent.
One of the most endearing today is that of Santa Claus, the jolly and generous old man who brings gifts in a spirit of joy and good cheer.
On the surface, Santa appears to have little to do with the birth of Jesus. But underneath, we find a real person who understood and embraced the message of love for all humanity.
Nicholas of Myra was born into a wealthy family and lived in the third and fourth centuries in what is today southern Turkey. Given the passage of time, it can be difficult to determine what’s fact and what’s fiction about his life. It’s said, for example, that when he learned of young women needing dowry money or facing a possible future of prostitution, he secretly put money into their shoes when they were left out at night.
Nicholas has become one of the most beloved of Christian saints. Many miracles are attributed to him, involving women, children and even sailors. His feast day is celebrated all over the world, normally on Dec. 6.
The Dutch name for St. Nicholas is Sinterklaas. Over the last few hundred years, Sinterklaas evolved into Santa Claus in many cultures. Just as with Christmas, his legend is a conglomeration of Christian and non-Christian stories.
Purists may argue that we’ve moved away from the true meaning of Christmas, as well as the essence of the message of St. Nicholas.
Maybe we have in some ways, but maybe in our multicultural way we’ve come even closer to the essence of a universal truth.
Living a joyful and meaningful life is about giving what we have. If we share peace and goodwill with others, we find them growing within us. If we share kindness, we become more kind. When we create happy memories for others, we create them for ourselves.
In essence, there’s no difference between giving and receiving.
These are beautiful points that St. Nicholas clearly understood. One can see from his life that he embraced the message of Jesus on a very profound level. How was hoarding the riches of his family going to benefit him? He realized that he had far more to gain by using his wealth to change the lives of others for the better.
We sometimes forget, however, that our financial wealth isn’t the only thing we have to share. Perhaps the greatest gift I ever received at Christmas was given to me by individuals who had almost nothing on a material level.
In 1992, I was working at a home for street children in the capital of Zaire (now the Democratic Republic of Congo). We did our best to give our young people a happy Christmas, but the food and gifts were simple.
Just to be present in this community, however, was joy in its purest form. The dancing, music, laughter and shared meal cooked by the children were elements of the most rapturous Christmas I had ever experienced. Everyone, like St. Nicholas, gave of what they had and the result was jubilation.
There’s nothing exclusively Christian about the message of St. Nicholas. And there’s nothing exclusive about the celebration of Christmas.
It’s a time when we come together, recognizing the gift that each of us is to the world and celebrating the gift that we all are to one another.