The Secret Society of St. Nicholas

“Do you still believe in Santa Claus?”

Moretto da Brescia, “St. Nicholas of Bari Presents the Rovelli Students to Madonna and Child,” 1539
Moretto da Brescia, “St. Nicholas of Bari Presents the Rovelli Students to Madonna and Child,” 1539 (photo: Public Domain)

We were on our way to Confirmation prep class and our eldest boy, who was 13 at the time, was talking about Christmas and Santa Claus. After a bit, I asked him, “Do you still believe in Santa Claus?”

“Yes.” He replied confidently. “Lots of my friends don’t, but there are all kinds of things we don’t see or understand and still believe.” My heart both sank and leapt at the gentle trust and faith of my son. “I just tell them they’re wrong, and that it can’t be their parents.”

I reached over in the dark of the car and held his hand.

“Oh no.” He whispered. “Say it isn’t really…”

“Do you know the story of St. Nicholas?” I asked him. “The real story of the saint?”

“Yeah… kinda…”

“About 1700 years ago, St. Nicholas was a wealthy man who had become a priest, and then a bishop, at a time when it was against the law to be a Christian. He didn’t care what the law was — he loved God and tried to take care of his little corner of the Church as best as he could. He took the wealth his parents had left him and began giving it away to those members of his flock who needed it. Remember, Christianity was illegal, so a lot of people suffered terribly.”

“Like they couldn’t get jobs?” My son asked.

“I would assume so. I can’t imagine the people of that area liking these lawbreakers, could you? So, anyway, the Christian people were being persecuted and many were poor. There’s a well-known tale of a family that was so poor that the father was having to sell his daughters into slavery because he couldn’t pay his bills and they couldn’t eat. Can you imagine the sadness of having to sell your children because you had no money? It’s unbelievable almost, that kind of pain.

Nicholas, the Bishop, heard about this family and wanted to help them, but couldn’t do it where other people could see. The cops already knew that he was a Christian, they had sent him to jail for it. If he was seen giving money to someone, they would be exposed as Christians, too. But Nicholas was clever, and as he walked by their house, he dropped a small bag of coins through the window. Three times he did this, until the family had enough money to not need to sell their daughters. One of those times, the coins landed in one of the girls’ shoes which were sitting by the fireplace.”

“Is that where the stockings on the mantle thing comes from?”

“Exactly right. We know these stories and retell them. That’s how most traditions begin. Like St. Nicholas. We don’t actually know what time of year it was when he gave the money to the girls, but we know it was cold-ish or her shoes wouldn’t have been near the fire.

Over the centuries, St. Nicholas became more and more loved by people as they heard tales of his goodness and generosity. Eventually, it became a thing for children to put out shoes on his feast day to see if they could get something good in their shoes, too.”

He sat for a second and thought about it. “So, how did it end up at Christmas? I know he was a bishop and loved Jesus, but how did we end up with Santa Claus and presents on Christmas Day?”

“I don’t really know the answer to that, but I have a guess. I’d think it was two things. The first is that his feast day is in December and close to Christmas. The second is the Protestants. They don’t have a love or an understanding of the saints the same way that we do. They also celebrate Christmas way before it actually arrives. That all kind of combined to make the Christmas season come before Christmas Day and St. Nick got swallowed up into it all.”

“So why do we do it? Why do Catholics play this game?”

“Because to us it’s not a game. To us, it’s doing something in memory and in the name of a great and wonderful man. It’s taking a moment to think about the needs and wants of others and then giving generously in the manner of St. Nicholas. We do it anonymously, and sign his name to the gift tags. Because, it isn’t about us, it’s about love and kindness. It’s about taking what we have and sharing what God has given us. It may not be an actual physical St. Nicholas, or Santa Claus, arriving at our homes on Christmas Eve, but it is those of us who love him and follow his example. In that way, his spirit of unselfish giving lives on along with his great faith and love.”

“So that makes us his followers… like disciples?” He asked me.

“Or elves,” I told him.

He laughed a bit and squeezed my hand. “It’s kind of like we’re a secret society, The Followers of Nicholas, isn’t it?”

“It is. Only you know the thing about a secret society is…”

“What happens in Fight Club stays in Fight Club?”

“Cute. If St. Nicholas didn’t tell, then neither should you.”

I waited a few moments before asking him, “I didn’t just kill it for you, did I? Have I killed the magic for you?”

“No. It’s not the sparkly magic, but it’s kinda better. There’s a secret pact of all the people in the world to love each other. That’s cooler than toy-making elves… Plus it takes away the creepy part of ‘He sees you when you’re sleeping…’”

“So, what do you think? Do you still believe in Santa Claus?”

“Absolutely, yes, even more now than ever before. Now, I get to be a part of it.”