Good St. Nick

| Jessica Weinberger | December 1, 2015 | 0 Comments


Feast day celebrations point to saint’s charity

On the eve of Dec. 6, nine pairs of shoes will sit in a neat line in the kitchen at John and Margaret Bernses’ Eagan home. Ranging in size from kid’s 5 1/2 to men’s 10, the shoes will soon be filled with gold coins, clementines and other treats in honor of the feast of St. Nicholas, much to the delight of the Bernses’ seven children, ages 3-18.

It’s this simple tradition, combined with reading and learning about St. Nicholas and his mission of giving and generosity, that keeps the Berns family, members of Holy Family in St. Louis Park, connected to the saints and focused on the season of Advent.

“You hear about Jesus being the reason of the season, and we want our kids to know the saint behind Santa Claus,” said Margaret, 49, who homeschools her children and manages a blog, “Minnesota Mom.”

The Bernses carry on the shoe tradition as a nod to one of the most popular stories of St. Nicholas, in which he tossed bags of gold coins through an open window into the shoes or stockings of three daughters who were without a dowry. The family also spends time paging through books on the saint and settles in to watch a lighthearted St. Nicholas cartoon.

At 3 years old, their youngest son, Nicholas, is just beginning to understand his patron saint, but for now, he proudly carries a St. Nicholas figurine and smiles as his older siblings proclaim Dec. 6 as his very own feast day.

Their traditions deliberately cast a spotlight on St. Nicholas, the patron saint of children known for his generosity and secret gift giving, and not Santa Claus.

“We don’t talk about Santa Claus as much in our family culture,” Margaret explained. “We’ve never gone to see Santa Claus at a mall because I personally want to distinguish between commercially what they’ve made him into and who St. Nicholas is.”

Their celebration of St. Nicholas Day coincides with the season of Advent, where each night they light their Advent wreath and gather around the kitchen table to sing, “O come, O come, Emmanuel” before opening the door on each child’s Advent calendar. They say St. Nicholas returns Dec. 25 to fill their stockings on Jesus’ birthday.

Who was St. Nicholas?

According to tradition, St. Nicholas was a fourth century bishop in what is now the southern coast of Turkey. He was born into a wealthy and devout Christian family, but his parents died when he was young. He used his inheritance to help people in need, including three young women whose father could not afford their dowries and therefore risked being sold into prostitution. According to “The Golden Legend,” a medieval collection of saints’ lives, St. Nicholas secretly tossed gold through the windows of the family’s home for each of the daughters. Some versions of the legend include the gold landing in the daughters’ shoes drying by the fire, which is why families fill shoes with gold coins and other goodies on his feast day, Dec. 6.

As an adult, St. Nicholas was named bishop of Myra and was persecuted under the Roman Emperor Diocletian. Following an exile and imprisonment, he attended the First Council of Nicaea in 325, where the first part of the Nicene Creed was established.

In the Netherlands, St. Nicholas is known as “Sinterklaas,” the basis for the name Santa Claus.

Instilling generosity

For Alex and Dayna Francis, parishioners of the Church of St. Paul in Ham Lake, St. Nicholas Day traditions have evolved with the ages of their three children, now 8, 6, and 3.

“If you have the desire to teach your kids about the saints, you can start with something as tiny as putting your shoes out in the hallway and then next year, God gives you the grace to add to that,” said Dayna, 33, who also homeschools her children.

Each year, the Francis children look forward to receiving items related to St. Nicholas or their saint name in their shoes. Now the older children are beginning to read the story of St. Nicholas and reflect on his spirit of generosity.

Last year, their oldest daughter, Jada, filled 10 boxes for Operation Christmas Child, and this year, she’s tasked with helping someone in need in secret in honor of St. Nicholas’ private works.

“It’s important to make it fun for the kids and highlight that being Catholic is reverent, but it can also be really fun,” said Alex, 34, a real estate agent.

Traditions around the world

Catholics celebrate St. Nicholas Day on his feast day, Dec. 6. In many countries like the U.S., families fill shoes or stockings with gold coins or oranges to symbolize the gold Nicholas gave three daughters for a dowry. In the Netherlands, people share candy and small gifts, and Dutch children leave carrots and hay in their shoes for the saint’s horse.
Some families exchange candy canes as a symbol of St. Nicholas’ bishop crosier and work as a shepherd to his people. Giving Christmas gifts or donations to those in need also honors his commitment to the most vulnerable.

To learn more about St. Nicholas and St. Nicholas Day traditions from around the world, visit

Rooted in tradition

The feast of St. Nicholas is steeped in family history for Anita Blaine Stavitzski, 38, a parishioner at Holy Name of Jesus in Medina. Together with her husband, David, 39, they’re raising two daughters, ages 8 and 6, in Anita’s childhood home in Plymouth and carrying on the traditions passed down from her grandmother’s family, who immigrated to the U.S. from Germany and Luxembourg in the 1870s.

St. Nicholas Day marks the beginning of their Christmas celebration. They start by cleaning their home and hanging their stockings on the same railing that Anita did as a child. They bring out the Advent wreath and family Christmas story books and also set up their nativity scene with the shepherds and animals. As they near Christmas, Mary, Joseph and, finally, the Baby Jesus join the scene.

As an adaptation of the Elf on the Shelf trend, an Advent angel appears in various places in their home in the weeks leading up to Christmas, serving as a reminder for the girls to be kind and loving during the Advent and Christmas seasons.

Their St. Nicholas Day traditions — both new and old — are intentional, all with the goal of building anticipation for the birth of Christ.

“These traditions, rituals and sacraments are gifts of the Catholic Church,” said Anita, an early childhood education teacher. “The home is the first church for children and by imparting some of that, we can bring forth these things that make our Church great.”

What am I going to give?

As Advent begins and the feast of St. Nicholas nears, the Bernses turn their attention to the letters W-A-I-T sitting prominently on their mantle. The word “wait” and the tenants of St. Nicholas’ teachings remind the family to see these four weeks as a season of preparation and giving, not busyness.

“St. Nicholas is all about what am I going to give,” Margaret said. “He focused on who is in need and always doing things for people, yet he didn’t want credit for it. That’s a really important lesson heading into Christmas.”


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Category: Focus on Faith