WATERLOO, Ont. — It wouldn’t be surprising for children gathering at a Feast of St. Nicholas celebration to expect a visit from a world-renowned giver of gifts.
But what may surprise many is that he wouldn’t be arriving in a reindeer-drawn sleigh or be dressed in a red suit.
Instead, the icon of generosity would be draped in shining red and gold vestments and crowned with a bishop’s mitre.
And instead of receiving gifts from a bulging bag of goodies, the children would be bringing a gift for less fortunate kids and assembling care packages for children living in a local shelter.
“It’s in keeping with what St. Nicholas embodies for the church,” said Rev. Christopher Rigden-Briscall, priest at Christ the Saviour Orthodox Church in Waterloo.
“He’s an example of humility and a teacher of abstinence.”
Different churches observe The Feast of St. Nicholas on different days. Some, like Rigden-Briscall’s congregation, were marking it on Dec. 6 of the Gregorian calendar. Others mark it each year on Dec. 19.
While many children await a jolly man who has swallowed his share of Christmas feasts, Orthodox icons depict St. Nicholas as a gaunt and serious man.
The image reflects the sober nature of the time approaching Christmas.
Orthodox parishioners observe a 40-day fast — forgoing meat, dairy, oil and wine on most days — before the Feast of the Nativity Christmas.
Before people can feast, they first must fast, Rigden-Briscall said, “or else you don’t know what it is to feast.”
But it’s not only a change in diet, he added. “It’s a heightening of spiritual self-examination.”
Fasting is a way of keeping focused on the birth of Jesus and not letting consumption be a distraction, he said.
Rigden-Briscall and his wife have four children between the ages of five and 14, so they know the pressures of gift-giving at Christmas. But they have a way of countering the emphasis on shopping that swirls around them at this time of year.
“As they (the children) talk about what they would like, we talk about preparing fasts,” he said.
The children gathering for the celebration at the Waterloo church planned to make crafts, decorate cookies and probably eat a few of them. They were also hanging decorations on a Christmas tree before Rigden-Briscall brings religion back to the forefront with a tree blessing.
At some point in the celebration, children were also to hear the back-story on St. Nicholas.
As with most ancient history, details are fuzzy so it’s difficult to say exactly how much is absolute fact. Some say the story of St. Nicholas is merely a collection of legends. Others argue that historical records corroborate his existence and some events in his life but that reports of some of his works have been invented or embellished over time.
During the fourth century, the man who would become St. Nicholas served as the bishop of Myra located near the Mediterranean coast in the southern area of present-day Turkey. Myra is now called Demre.
Christians considered St. Nicholas to be miraculous long before he became known as an enchanted giver of gifts, said Gerry Bowler, history teacher at the University of Manitoba and author of Santa Claus: A Biography (2005).
Nicholas was believed to be able to talk at a very early age and was so pious he refused to suck from his mother’s breast on days designated for fasting, he said.
As a clergyman, St. Nicholas became famous for confronting heretics.
One story testifying to his generosity had him tossing bags of gold into the window of a poor man in order to prevent him from leading his daughters into prostitution.