The Real St. Nicholas Didn’t Need to Act Jolly — He Knew Christian Joy

Worldly people mock Catholicism for her fasts, but in doing so deprive themselves of her feasts.

Uroš Predić, “Saint Nicholas,” 1903
Uroš Predić, “Saint Nicholas,” 1903 (photo: Wikimedia Commons / Public Domain)

St. Nicholas Day brings back fond memories of rushing to find my shoes filled with candy and curling up with my siblings to watch the wonderful CCC video of St. Nicholas’ life. Most memorably, I recall my college roommates (many of whom were not Catholic), accosting me outside of my dorm room on his feast day, throwing chocolates at me per my mom’s request (she was worried I’d miss out on the fun, and contacted all of them, a feat she repeated throughout my undergraduate and graduate years until my husband took over the job). Now, I giddily fill my sons’ shoes, anticipating their delight.

But in the midst of all the fun, St. Nicholas himself is overlooked, which seems a bit unfair. After all, he was a bishop of the early Church, having been made Bishop of Myra in the 4th century, and he suffered persecution and imprisonment at the hands of the Romans. A fearless defender of the faith (despite the questionable veracity of the “Arius punching” anecdote), and generous Christian who famously left bags of gold at the home of a poor man about to be forced to sell his daughters into slavery. It’s arguably almost rude to memorialize this great man’s heroic faith by filling our shoes with candy.

However, it’s a liberty that I’d like to believe the good bishop wouldn’t mind us taking. St. Nicholas Day is far more than an opportunity for yet more ingesting of sugar in the weeks leading up to Christmas. It is a chance to celebrate in the midst of a penitential season. Advent is a time of vigilant watchfulness, a time when we are asked to mimic Mary and join with Heaven in anticipation of Christ’s coming. We pray, fast and wait, ignoring the rampant consumerism around us and keeping our eyes focused on Bethlehem. Although it lasts for only four weeks, this season serves to remind us of how we should live throughout our lives, expectant and hopeful, never losing sight of our long-awaited reunion with Christ.

This unceasing yearning is another suffering brought on by the Fall. We were created to be with God and, in our exile, we long for Christ and await his return. But in the midst of our vigil, we get to rejoice. Catholicism’s detractors often deride the Church for her many rules. Sadly for them, they miss not only the vision of the Truth that Catholicism is offering, but also her joy. The world mocks Catholicism for her fasts, but in doing so deprive themselves of her feasts.

In his great work Orthodoxy, GK Chesterton wrote:

Joy, which was the small publicity of the pagan, is the gigantic secret of the Christian. … There was some one thing that was too great for God to show us when He walked upon our earth; and I have sometimes fancied that it was His mirth.

The Fall provides the context of the pain experienced, and inflicted, in this world, and we can rejoice because we know these trials and tribulations are not suffered in vain. The victory has been won. Moreover, each of us has been willed by an all-loving Creator who takes unadulterated joy in our very existence.

I am willing to presume that St. Nicholas understood this more deeply than most of us. In the pages of history St. Nicholas doesn’t often come up as a figure of hilarity, and indeed he is often painted quite the opposite as a reaction to the jolly and saccharine figure of Santa Claus. But a man does not survive brutal persecution and imprisonment with his faith unscathed if he does not have unwavering and joyful hope.

So, on this St. Nicholas Day, I will tell my children about this great saint, and we’ll watch that very same CCC film on his life. And I will marvel at their small faces of delight as they discover M&Ms in their shoes, because in this dark, broken world we are called to live with joy.