Little is known of Saint Nicholas of Myra who was later transformed into Santa Claus, though the legends abound.
The image of Saint Nicholas as a jolly old elf arose in the consumerist West, with his red suit compliments of his association with Coca Cola since the 1920s.
But he was a bishop in the fourth century and the Dutch Sint Niklaas is clearly a bishop.
But the legends present him as a radical protector of the marginalized.
He saved three daughters of a bankrupt father from prostitution by throwing bags of money for their dowries through the window .
He supposedly restored to life three little boys who had been killed by a savage man who was pickling their heads. He thus might be a patron of efforts to expose and end child abuse. (Some suggest that this story arose from the three bags of money for the dowries which were mistaken for children’s heads.)
He saved men on a ship in a storm and so is a patron of sailors and travelers.
But he also intervened for those unjustly condemned and there is an icon of Saint Nicholas intervening to prevent an execution.
He is also said to have protected the Jews who lived in his diocese.
There are other stories but what strikes me is that he was a protector of children and of those who were at the margins of society. He saw the powers of death – hunger, poverty, child abuse, capital punishment, injustice, anti-Semitism – and responded.
So should we.
And so the best way to honor Saint Nicholas is not to give gifts (though I’m taking three bags of candy with me today to a celebration in a rural village on Gracias). Rather, Saint Nicholas calls us to advocate for justice, to defend the orphans and widows, to help bring down the lofty city where oppression reigns so that, as in today’s reading from Isaiah 26: 1-6,
It is trampled underfoot by the needy,
By the footsteps of the poor.