The tradition of giving gifts during the Advent season most likely originated with Saint Nicolas, the Bishop of Myra (died c. 350) in what is now modern day Turkey. Nicolas was known for his generosity toward those in need – especially children. One of the most famous legends surrounding him was his tossing a bag of gold coins into the window of a poor family in order to provide a dowry for each of their daughters to be married. He was a real person.
In fourth century Germany a legend emerged of a man dressed in distinctive fur trimmed robes. He appeared annually throughout the land bringing gifts for deserving children. The Russian gift-bringer Grandfather Frost arrives on New Year’s Day. The Norwegian Julenissen brings presents to all good children on Christmas Eve himself. Père Noël, the French character, brings small gifts on December 6 and comes back on Christmas Eve to deliver more gifts. Children leave their shoes by the fireplace in hopes that Le Père Noël will fill them with gifts.
The jolly, colorful British figure popular long before Charles Dickens used his character in A Christmas Carol appears annually during the festive season singing the praises of plum pudding while spreading joy and merriment. And, a legend from 19th century North America has a character named “Santa Claus” visiting homes through the chimney and leaving presents under the Christmas tree and in stockings of all good children. Never mind the logistics of this feat…somehow this gift bringer manages to meet the needs of all. And the threat of not getting gifts from him gives leverage to parents of more recalcitrant children.
This gift giving tradition of the Advent season did most likely begin with a real person, now the venerated Saint Nicolas in the Orthodox Church and among Catholics of Eastern rites in many parts of Central and Northern Europe.
But, the trajectory of this tradition took on a life of it’s own morphing into many cultural interpretations – most often represented by some version of a kind, generous jolly character. The hook for receiving is often tied to the good behavior of children. But, parenthetically, does anyone really forgo presents to a particular child because of his or her behavior?
If the human tradition of giving gifts, no strings attached, began with the Bishop of Myra, Saint Nicolas then, where innately in his soul did this motivation emerge?
What if God had not given? What if He had not provided a model? What if God had not had compassion on the lost and needy world and had not sent a rescuer to offer The Ultimate Gift of Himself? Would anyone in any century, in any geographical location EVER, ever been able to conceive from within their fallen, separated from God, sinful, selfish grid of seeing the world been able to fabricate true, selfless gift giving? Seriously – could they have? Would they have? I don’t think so.
Not being able to x-ray Saint Nicolas’s motives or interview him for his reasons we can only conjecture that this real person who had so many stories and ultimately legends surrounding him really did his acts of generosity from a God motive within him. God gave to the world (John 3:16) His son. We know that. It is innate within every believer if motivated by the Spirit the capacity to give, to offer to others beyond themselves, to imitate the Ultimate Gift Giver who gave the most priceless gift ever – His son.
May our gift giving be celebrated as the simple act of modeling God’s gift to us and may we offer His gift to those who do not yet know, The Gift.
Jesus spoke simply to the woman at the well – “If you knew the gift of God and who it is who asks you for a drink, you would have asked him and he would have given you living water.” (John 4:10)