Friday, December 6, 2019

Saint Nicholas, Patron of Children

There are many patron saints for children, but perhaps the most popular is Saint Nicholas. Saint Nicholas is a patron of many things, including entire countries, but he is especially esteemed as a patron of children, which was greatly enhanced in the 19th century when he came to be identified with the gift-giving Santa Claus of Christmas. However, with the rise of the mythical Santa Claus, there was a decline of devotion towards the real Saint Nicholas.

Before the rise of the Santa Claus legend, Reverend Alban Butler wrote in the mid-18th century:

"St. Nicholas is esteemed a patron of children, because he was from his infancy a model of innocence and virtue, and to form that tender age to sincere piety was always his first care and delight. To impress on the minds of children perfect sentiments of devotion, religion, and all virtues, with an earnestness in all duties, is a task often as delicate as it is important. Instructions must be made sensible, and adapted by similes, parables, and examples, to the weakness of their capacities. Above all, they are to be enforced by the conduct of those with whom children converse. They learn their maxims, imbibe their spirit, and are moulded upon their example. A child which sees those who are about him love their own ease, and ever seek what best pleases their senses; still more if he observes them to be choleric, peevish, vain, slothful, or impatient, will naturally cherish these passions, and yield up the government of himself to them, instead of learning by tractableness, humility, meekness, and self-denial, to subdue and govern them. And so in all other points. Precepts and exhortations lose their force when contradicted by example: and whilst the infant sees every one study to please himself in every thing, in flat opposition to the rules of the gospel, which he hears preached from their mouths, he seems tacitly persuaded, that such a conduct is reconcilable with those very maxims which condemn it."

For Reverend Butler, Saint Nicholas was a patron of children to serve as a model for children, a model of innocence and virtue and sincere piety. He then gives some advice on how to educate children, primarily through our own example. We are also told in his life story how he raised from the dead three little boys who had been murdered by an innkeeper. The most popular story about Saint Nicholas tells of his compassion for three poor young girls. Their father had lost his fortune and with it all hope of providing dowries for his daughters. To save them from their poverty and the threat of having to support themselves as prostitutes, Nicholas threw bags of gold coins through an open window of the poor family’s house so that each daughter would have enough to make a good marriage.

It was in Germany and the Netherlands that Saint Nicholas as the patron saint of children led to the idea that he gave gifts secretly to children on December 6, his feast day. It was from this notion that the idea of Santa Claus ultimately developed. Today there is a movement to restore Saint Nicholas to his former status. Children should be taught to separate the Saint Nicholas of history from the Santa Claus of legend, and make Saint Nicholas a model of virtue instead of an arbitrator of the naughty and the nice.