THE SYMBOLIC LIFE (Winter 2016)
The true story of Santa Claus begins with a man named Nicholas who was born during the third century in a village on the southern coast of Turkey. At the time the area was Greek. His wealthy parents, who raised him to be a devout Christian, died in an epidemic while Nicholas was still young. Obeying Jesus' words to "sell what you own and give the money to the poor," Nicholas used his whole inheritance to assist the needy, the sick, and the suffering. He dedicated his life to serving God and was made Bishopof Myra while still a young man. Bishop Nicholas became known throughout the land for his generosity tothose in need, his love for children, and his concern for sailors and ships.
Widely celebrated in Europe, St. Nicholas' feast day, December 6th, kept alive the stories of his goodness and generosity. December 6th is still the main day for gift giving and merrymaking in much of Europe. (visit: stnicolascenter.org)
In the 16th Century in northern Europe, after the reformation, the stories and traditions about St. Nicholas became unpopular. But someone had to deliver presents to children at Christmas, so in the UK, particularly in England, he became 'Father Christmas' or 'Old Man Christmas', an old character from stories during the middle ages in the UK and parts of northern Europe. In the earlyUSA his name was 'Kris Kringle'. Later, Dutch settlers in the USA took the old stories of St. Nicholas with them and Kris Kringle became 'Sinterklaas' or as we now say 'Santa Claus'! (visit: whychristmas.com)
We thus have in our culture a tradition of selfless gift-giving that goes back to the fourth century in Turkey. Curiously, such a tradition was already alive in North America. As author/storyteller Joseph Bruchac tells us, "Giving in a sacred way has always been a part of American Indian cultures. It may be a means of giving thanks, of bringing the people together, of gaining honor, of distributing material goods so that all may survive, of teaching. It maintains the balance that is needed to hold a nation together and to keep an individual in the right relationship within him or herself and with the community–a community that is not just composed of humans, but also of animals, plants, even the stones, For all things are alive."
"One of the very common practices of virtually every American Indian nation is some form of what is called otuhan in Lakota and in English 'a giveaway.' It is a different sort of giving and receiving from that practiced in majority culture, where the giver is often calling attention to his or her generosity, and the gift is often followed by effusive thanks from the receiver. The strengthening of community is much more important in the American Indian practice, a gift more akin to prayer than self-aggrandizement and acquisition."
Curiously this Native American tradition sounds very similar to the practice fostered by Nicholas of Myra. Yet ironically, as Bruchac notes, historically "American Indian giveaway practices have often been viewed as a threat by government officials, both in the United States and Canada. Government policies in the nineteenth and much of the twentieth century were designed to suppress such activities." For instance, in 1922 the Federal Indian Commissioner wrote to all the superintendents of the U. S. Indian reservations that in order to "foster a competitive individualistic economic mentality and a Christian faith using missionaries as aides in this effort" certain practices needed to be eliminated. In an accompanying letter addressed "To All Indians," he wrote that "you should not do evil or foolish things or take so much time for these occasions. No good comes from your 'give away' custom at dances and it should be stopped." One can only wonder what Nicholas would have thought of this or the Pilgrims for that matter, whose survival depended on such Native customs.
Bruchac's article, "Giving and Receiving," can be found in Parabola, Vol. 36, No. 2, Summer 2011 or by going to: http://parabola.org/2016/06/20/sacred-giving-sacred-receiving-by-joseph-bruchac/. The article includes several Native American stories. The websites listed above also have additional stories.
As a theme for this Solstice season, and for the new year, we are all invited to participate in a giving as Bruchac suggests that is not calling attention to ourselves but to the spiritual power behind all of life, where both giving and receiving remain sacred in a way that brings people together.
Editor: Steve Galipeau