Monday, December 6th
…When you give alms, do not let your left hand know what your right hand is doing, so that your alms may be done in secret; and your Father who sees in secret will reward you.
~ Matthew 6:3-4 (NRSV)
Myra was a Greek city on the southern coast of what’s now Turkey, in which it’s a small town called Demre. But as part of Lycian Greece, it was an outpost of Grecian culture, a seaport with cosmopolitan connections, and in the early Fourth Century the Christian community of Myra had its own bishop, a fellow named Nicholas.
There’s a long journey from Nicholas of Myra to Santa Claus, and some might even argue there’s no real connection anymore between the two. This is where the wider Christian tradition of acknowledging saints has been less accepted in more austere branches of our faith community, because the historic person and the legends that can entwine their image can in truth end up at some distance from each other.
Saint Nicholas is honored in the ancient Christian calendar on December 6, traditionally the date of his passing in the year 343. The week between St. Nicholas’s Day and St. Lucy’s on the 13th is where many northern European traditions of trees and candles and wreaths and gifts have their actual roots, grafted onto the celebration of the birth of Jesus a little later in the month.
December 6 as a time for gift giving has the longest heritage, although it might be worth recalling that for many centuries while there were gifts in the Advent season, they were no more than could be stuffed into a stocking or stuck in a shoe left at a child’s bedroom door. This would seem to leave out ponies and bicycles and game consoles, let alone automobiles with giant red bows.
But the idea of a secretly given gift, without the giver seeking credit for having left it, has a very long and honorable heritage going back at least to Nicholas himself. The legends go back nearly to his era, that the bishop of Myra was, as a good Christian pastor would be, attentive to the hurts and needs of the congregation. Nicholas knew of certain challenges faced by various families in his parish, and found a way to make the practical side of a solution (gold coins, or a ransom in a pouch, or some other tangible way to pay off a debt) show up in their house. He never climbed down a chimney in those first stories out of Myra, but sometimes stockings or shoes by a fireplace were the receptacle of the needed gold bags.
The semi-ironic point of them all was that the receivers didn’t know who their benefactor was, though if that really was the case, why do we know it was Bishop Nick here some seventeen centuries later? Ah, saints stories. Like a modern superhero movie, you may not want to pick at the details too closely, let alone the physics. The through-line of the story is that there was a family in need, a church ready to respond, and a gift given not to receive thanks in return, but to honor Jesus’s call to love one another.
And isn’t the clear origin of the impulse of Saint Nicholas that caution from Christ in the Sermon on the Mount: that in giving gifts to aid and uplift others, don’t tell people. Don’t put your name on a plaque. Don’t make a big deal about it to others. In fact, don’t even let your left hand know what your right hand is doing. A warning I read this way: when you give a gift? Give, and let it go. If you give something to someone, and you find yourself worrying about their reaction, their response, how thankful they are or whether it’s getting used the way you think it should? You need to forget about it. That’s the left side of your brain knowing too much about what the right half got going on. Drop it.
Leaving aside the puzzle of how we know, but letting it be one of those artistic license moments, Bishop Nicholas in helping his community members was truly a Secret Santa. That was clearly his intention, and that seems to be a scriptural intention, too. May all our giving and sharing and helping this Advent be done in that same spirit.
Prayer: God of grace, giver of every good and perfect gift, help us to give freely, to receive thankfully, and to share in the joys of this season as people of grace, a family of faith, with a witness to the world. Amen!
[Jeff Gill is a writer, storyteller, and preacher living in Granville, Ohio; his email is email@example.com but he’s fairly slow about replying, so please be patient.]