Saint Nicholas

A few years back, one of my holiday traditions then was the role I played in a Christmastime church function.

 St. Nicholas prepares for his visit at St. Agnes Church in Avon, NY.  Photo: Newvine Family Collection.

The picture shows a Santa like depiction of Saint Nicholas that I had the privilege of assuming for a few years during the late 1990’s and the early 2000’s.  

In case you don’t know much about Saint Nicholas, here’s a refresher.  The real Saint Nicholas was a bishop in the fourth century in what is now known as Turkey. 

He came from a wealthy family, and sought to use his blessings to help others.  There are many stories of miracles attributed to him.  In one story he asked for a portion of a wheat cargo from a transport ship, promising the sailors they would not come up short when they reached their final destination. 

The sailors reluctantly agreed to give a two-year supply of wheat to the residents of a village.  As the story goes, the sailors discovered when they reached their final destination that the total weight of their cargo had not changed.

Another story attributed to Saint Nicholas was about establishing dowries for three women in one family who were not well off.  A dowry was customarily given to the groom by a bride’s family when she married. 

Many times, women who could not provide a dowry would not marry.  If they had no family to live with, they faced an uncertain future for themselves in a male-dominated society. 

The Saint Nicholas story ends with the discovery of coins tossed through a window as the family slept.  The coins became the dowry.  

This story fed a legend that if children left their shoes near an open window at Christmas, they would awaken the next morning to find the shoes filled with gifts and treats from Saint Nicholas.  

The telling of Saint Nicholas’ story was a tradition at the church in the community where my wife and I raised our two daughters.  

The saint’s official feast day is December 6th, but our church, Saint Agnes in Avon, New York,  had to schedule our celebration as close to that date as possible because it did not always land on a weekend. 

Our two very young daughters participated in the event in the mid-1980’s when Father Charles Bennett was the first to put on the costume to tell “his” story, and give the children treats.  

He passed away a year later, so the tradition nearly ended before it was really established.  Fortunately, two other parishioners took over for the next several years to portray the saint.  

It eventually evolved into the children leaving their shoes at the back of church before Mass, having Saint Nicholas visit after the homily (sermon), and finding a gift (usually candy) in their shoes as they left Mass.

In the late 1990s, the Saint Nicholas visit was again in danger of being stopped at our church.  My wife asked me if I’d consider doing it just one time.  I did it that time, and for a few more years I became the holiday time visitor for the congregation.

There was something special about putting on the costume

It started with a white cassock (a floor-length robe) and then was layered with a red surplice (a sleeveless robe that looks like a poncho).  Then a special bishop’s type hat and a long white beard were added to complete the costume. 

It was hot underneath those garments, especially the beard.  But it helped transform me into the man who lived a long time ago and who would share his story with children so they could once more enjoy his visit.

I was also fortunate enough to portray Saint Nicholas at the religious education classes for two parishes.  The younger kids probably confused Saint Nicholas with Santa.  The older ones probably just went along because it was taking place at a church.

While being Saint Nicholas for children was gratifying to me, two special times when I put on the costume stand out because the audience was not young folks.

Our parish Deacon asked me to bring Saint Nicholas to a juvenile detention facility  

A small holiday party was planned for a group of teenage boys who were incarcerated.  The message was tailored to this specific audience.  Ina thank you note following the appearance, the Deacon told me that most of these young men had very little to look forward to during the holiday season, and that my appearance showed that someone out there cared about them.

The last time I put on the costume was Christmas night in 2003. Our family spent the Christmas evening together by producing Saint Nicholas’ final visit.  I had already accepted the job that would bring me to California and would be heading west in another month. 

My two daughters asked if Saint Nicholas would come to the nursing home where they worked and visit with the residents.  My wife and I arrived shortly after the residents had dinner, and we stayed for quite a while visiting with these seniors. 

It was one of the last things we did as a family before we were separated by thousands of miles.

I wish you all a very Merry Christmas and hope that you have some cherished memories to recall at this time of year too. 

Steve is grateful to his wife Vaune who helped recall some of the Saint Nicholas memories and who helped edit this column.