Today is the feast of St. Nicholas, one of my favorite winter holidays when I was growing up. It was part of the quiet Advent season without the expectations and pressures of Christmas. On the morning of December 6, I got up early and ran to the kitchen. Everyone in the family had set out bowls the night before. The bowls were filled with mixed nuts, frosted animal cookies, an apple and an orange. Beneath mine I usually found a book, maybe two. I might have a small ornament for the tree that hadn’t arrived yet or a new Christmas mug. My favorite plush Santa returned every year. (St. Nicholas can’t find him this year and needs some help from St. Anthony!!)
After I moved away from home, Mom filled a paper bag with St. Nicholas treats when I went home for Thanksgiving. On December 5, I turned out the lights and poured the contents into a bowl so I could be surprised the next morning. If I didn’t go home for Thanksgiving, she mailed a package to me and I always waited to open it. New figures for my crèche replaced books in later years. The frosted animal cookies were a staple. I usually supplied my own orange and apple. This year the new figure is the Fontanini Memorial Angel, fitting as we celebrate the holidays for the first time without Mom.
St. Nicholas for me has always been about surprise, wonder, and the joy of simple things. It’s about family traditions and appreciating small gifts. This year was no different. I was out of town over the weekend and my dear friend and dog sitter left me packages of coffee and cider. I didn’t discover it until this morning and knew that St. Nicholas was alive and well!
The feast of St. Nicholas is a reminder that Christmas and the mystery of the Incarnation celebrates a God who graces us with new and wonderful things. As a friend of mine often says, “Let yourself be surprised by this God of surprises, the one who says to us, ‘You don’t need to be afraid. I’ll be there.'” That is, after all, the meaning of Emmanuel.