Today (Thursday, Dec. 6), is a special day in the calendar of the church.
It is the commemoration of St. Nicholas, Bishop of Myra and it is also a special day in the calendar of Canada, being the National Day of Action on Violence Against Women, which commemorates those that died in the tragic Montreal Massacre, when 14 women were killed at a polytechnic institute in Montreal simply because of their gender.
It is interesting that this day should fall on the same day, that we remember the saint who would, many centuries later, be transformed into the red-suited Santa Claus of North American shopping malls, or the Father Christmas of British high street department stores but there is a connection.
To be such a well-known and venerated saint, very little is known about him. Nicholas was the fourth century bishop of Myra, now known as Mugla, and is situated in what is now southwestern Turkey.
There are many legends depicting his kindness, compassion and generosity.
The most famous being his kindness and care for three young women who were about to be sold into slavery as prostitutes by their parents due to their poverty.
The legend tells that Nicholas left three bags of gold on their doorstep for their marriage dowries, saving them from a life of violence and prostitution.
Many other stories are told of him saving people from desperate situations: young boys from violent murder, sailors from storms at sea.
He is the patron saint of Russia as well as children, sailors, unmarried young women, merchants, pawnbrokers, apothecaries and perfumieres, all connected in some way to the legendary events of his life.
In memory of his deed of mercy to the three young girls about to be sold into slavery, the Dutch developed the custom of giving gifts to children on his feast day (Dec. 6).
They brought this custom to America, where the Dutch Protestants of New Amsterdam (New York) united it with Nordic folklore legends of a magician, who would come down the smoke-hole of their medieval huts, punishing naughty children and rewarding good ones with presents.
And so in time, “Sant Nikolaas” was changed into “Santa Claus” and the gift giving moved to Christmas.
The real St. Nicholas died some 1,670 years ago, in the year 342, renowned for his compassion and mercy to all.
So as we remember Nicholas, who abhorred the violence and cruelty of his time, let us also remember to stand against the violence, cruelty and prejudices of our own time.
– The Rev. Simon Shenstone is pastor of Holy Trinity Anglican Church in Grand Forks