“We have gifts that differ according to the grace given to us: prophecy in proportion to faith; ministry, in ministering; the teacher, in teaching; the exhorter, in exhortation; the giver, in generosity; the leader, in diligence; the compassionate, in cheerfulness.”
Romans 12:6-8, NRSV
You may look at the picture above and wonder: what does this image have to do with Advent? Apparently, the members of a rather large family left their boots out in front of the door. Big deal.
But there is a back story to that picture. These boots were put in front of the door in hope, confidence, and anticipation. Back in Europe, people have the tradition of celebrating St. Nicholas Day on December 6th. And those boots play a big role in that.
But let’s backtrack just a little. Who is or was this St. Nicholas, who is still commemorated in many parts of Europe today? St. Nicholas was bishop of Myra (modern day Turkey) in the 4th century. He was an influential theologian of his day, and a strong advocate against the heresies of his day. St. Nicholas embodied all the gifts St. Paul talks about in the passage above. However, St. Nicholas is most remembered for his compassion and generosity. One famous legend tells the story of how Nicholas anonymously helped an impoverished family: the father could not come up with the dowry for his daughters, who thus were fated to be sold into slavery. The father of the family was too proud to accept any aid, so St. Nicholas resorted to trickery – in the middle of the night, according to legend, he threw coins through the chimney (or window?), which then landed in some stockings hung up to dry by the fire (does this sound vaguely familiar???). Needless to say, the young girls were spared the fate of slavery.
This story may be a legend, but there is evidence that Nicholas would go out at night and leave gifts for the needy at their doorsteps. Still today in the Roman Catholic and Orthodox traditions, he is still venerated as the patron saint of the children and of the needy.
So can you guess why those boots in the picture above are left out on St. Nicholas Eve? Well, in the morning, the boots look more like this:
Filled with little gifts and sweets, which, allegedly, are given by St. Nicholas, who loves the children (and all those young at heart, too). The joyful anticipation, as the boots are put out empty at night and the door is closed, is fulfilled in the morning, as the door is opened again.
The story of St. Nicholas (who, if you haven’t guessed it yet, is the man behind Santa Claus) teaches us a few things. The first and obvious thing is: we are most remembered by our generosity and our compassion, rather than for all the clever things we say or the good advice we give. We are most remembered for the love of God we share with those in need – and thus make Christ known to a world in deep darkness. Another thing St. Nicholas’ story teaches us: if we don’t put out our boots, confident that they will be filled, how can we expect to find the fullness of God’s gifts and blessings once we open the door in the morning?
Have a blessed St. Nicholas Day filled with the goodness of God!
This post is also available in: German