Thursday, December 6, 2012

The Secret Society of St Nick

Last night, on our way to Confirmation prep class, #2 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?"


"1700 years ago, St Nicholas was a wealthy man who became 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 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, #2, do you still believe in Santa Claus?"

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


Karie, the Regular Guy's Extraordinary Wife said...

Thank you so much for this amazing transition. God has blessed your heart with an amazing understanding of how to teach your children from being "little" to being "big". You deprived him of his naivete, but not his innocence. Well done, Mom, well done.

Beth (A Mom's Life) said...

Sitting here with tears in my eyes! I hope I can let me kids down as gently and as spirit-filled as you did!

Michele said...


We dont do the whole "Santa Claus" bit at all. We do St. Nicholas on the 6th but the gift they get on Christmas, they know is from us, and that they are getting a gift in honor Jesus's birthday (since we dont give 'physical birthday gifts' to Him). But I just LOVE this conversation that you had!!!

Kigwit said...

This is lovely! I hope I can handle this situation with as much grace when my turn comes along.

Astoria Girl said...


Better Than Eden said...

Wow, I'm with Michele. We also don't do Santa Claus and do St. Nick today but I just loved this post. I love the part of giving anonymously and signing his name to it. It helps me understand and accept it much more :)

Considerer said...

How do protestants celebrate Christmas before it happens? Just curious.

Rebecca Frech said...

Considerer - Thanks for asking! We are, right now, in the season of Advent not the season of Christmas. This is the time of preparation for the Birth of Christ. You wouldn't know it in the Protestant churches. Their decorations are up and will disappear December 26th. The Christmas carols began the week after Thanksgiving (this year it was 5 weeks until Christmas). The Christmas Pageants are over and finished the first weekend of December. Many of the Protestant Churches in the United States will not even have services on Christmas Day because "that day is really all about family", as more than one minister has told me.

They celebrate the baby before He is born, and treat His birthday as nothing more than a day for commercialism. They seem to have lost the sense of patience, waiting, and "in the fullness of time."

Maurisa said...

Sigh. Just love this.

Anonymous said...

Rebecca, I'm not a Catholic but I do enjoy your writing and your way of thinking about most issues. However, in this particular instance, I want to encourage you to do some real research into the origins of December 25th as the celebration of Christmas as well as how various traditions of Christmas were established (including but not limited to gift-giving, merrymaking, yule logs, etc etc etc). Your answer to your son (which by and large was a graceful and loving exchange that most would be lucky to emulate) fails when it "guesses" to "blame" Protestants for making Christmas into a "game." The history of Christmas Celebrations is widely researched and written about in both Catholic and Protestant circles and are largely in agreement, and Christmas began to be celebrated in this fashion long before Protestants existed as a formal sect. I agree with you that we've diluted the potency of the holiday by extending Christmas into a 5-week "holiday season" and I appreciate that you were dealing with a sensitive issue on the fly, but suggest that your answer may be slightly different on the subject after some brief research.

Rebecca Frech said...

Anonymous, PLease forgive me if my writing was somehow unclear. It is not general Christmas celebration which I consider to be a silly game, but the character and traditions of Santa Claus itself. Elves? Flying reindeer? It's a game whose origins touch Europe, but belong most completely in America. The "jolly old elf" is an American invention. The subsuming of a saint's feast day into what is a mostly commercial holiday than a religious holy-day.

The fact that his feast day falls so close to Christmas coupled together with no Advent, a lack of understanding of any kind of liturgical calendar, and the heavily consumerist culture of mostly 20th century America all combined to ensure that way too many Americans don't even know that he was a real man, or anything about him. In even nominally Catholic countries, there is a greater knowledge of who the historic Nicholas was. When the Protestant rebellion threw off the Church, they lost the knowledge of a great deal of Christian history and traditions.

Rebecca Frech said...

That was all typed from my husband's Blackberry which has the tiniest screen imaginable. Please excuse any spelling/grammatical errors you may find. I couldn't see them.

Christine Dalessio said...

I think your son just blew my mind. We've been so worried about my 9 yo nephew who still is holding on. Since he doesn't have parents who are developing his faith life for him, I am really worried that no Santa will equal no God. Lord have mercy.

Anonymous said...

Wow nice post! Im not from the USA and had a hard time dealing with the whole Consummirist Santa thing

NJ Kim said...

Such a wonderful way to handle it - my 2 oldest still believe (11 yo and 8 yo). They are both very intelligent, insightful kids who should know better, but insist they believe. I feel very uncomfortable keeping up this charade, but my husband loves the innocence of it and goes out of his way to "prove" Santa is real. (glittery chocolate chips in the snow Christmas morning prove that the reindeer were here and pooped on our lawn. Lord have mercy.) My children are filled with faith in our Lord, and I encourage them to be "santa" to those in need. We also give the small gifts to them from Santa and leave the best gifts from us. That way, they don't think Santa is the best gift-giver EVER. I want so badly for my 6th grader to ask me point blank what the truth is so I can finally tell her. I want to do it as gracefully as you did. Thank you for posting this and God bless!

Barbara C. said...

As far as I know my 10-year-old still believes, I need to save this post for when I finally have to "come clean". I know that she might freak out and accuse me of "lying to her" (she already thinks that she should be privy to ALL information in the house as if she is a third adult in my marriage), but I'm hoping she will instead enjoy the idea of being a part of the Secret Society of St. Nick.

Packrat said...


Nick said...

Love this post! We are a new/young family, we have a 19 month old boy and our daughter will be arriving in a couple weeks! We just celebrated our first feast of St. Nicholas and that had me looking at other lost traditions that Catholics and the like used to practice. So how would you suggest celebrating Christmas? Should gifts be given out on Nick's feast day and Christmas? Should the tree go up on Christmass Eve or long before? Should we attend Midnight Mass? Should we give gifts on the twelve days of Christmas leading up to the Epiphany? Do you do anything special on the Epiphany or on the Feast of St. Stephen? Sorry for so many questions! I'm just excited to know how other old fashioned conservative Catholics think, lol.. Thank you! ~Nick

Anonymous said...

Truly lovely. St. Nectarios Press has a wonderful children's Life of St. Nicholas, told in rhyme, that would be very helpful. It seems to be out of print, but Amazon has a couple of used copies for sale.

R. N. Wightman
Missionaries of St. John, Anglican

cathmom5 said...

Stop making me cry!!

Lovely way to tell. Our family celebrates St. Nicholas Day every year. I hope they understand it this way.

flatlander said...

Hey! I'm stealing this for my Christmas homily. I'll post a recording at if you're interested in hearing it.
Father Nicholas Blaha

Rebecca Frech said...

It's all yours, Father. I look forward to hearing it. Merry Christmas!

Micaela Darr said...

So very beautiful. I have tears in my eyes. Thank you for this. I didn't want to do Santa initially, but my kids picked up on it and I decided to let it play out. I have a feeling this talk will come up this year or next.

Beth said...

<3 I love this. Even more because you wrote it the day Sarah was born <3