Friday, December 4, 2009

Saint Nicholas and the Present

Beginning on his Feast Day of December 6 and continuing through the Christmas season, folks are put in mind of St. Nicholas, who comes in guises ranging from a red-suited elf to a retail pitchman. In reality, Nicholas was a Fourth Century Bishop of Myra, born in what is now southern Turkey, who personified the divine nature of generosity.

As the Patron Saint of, among others, archers, bakers, bankers, mariners, merchants and pawnbrokers, he has myriad responsibilities, to be certain. Of course, Nicholas is best known as the Patron Saint of Children.

At first, this may appear an impossibly eclectic group of things for one saint to represent. In particular, the idea that the same figure can oversee both businessmen and babies might seem a stretch. But there is something to Nicholas’ combined portfolio of commerce and kindness. Simply put, the more you give, the more you get.

Economist Arthur C. Brooks has done extensive research on this counterintuitive phenomenon, noting, “It’s like the hand of God or something on the economy.” Brooks concludes that being generous makes people happier and thereby more successful. He stresses that a person does not need to be rich before he or she can benefit from giving. That is, kindness of spirit does the trick, no matter your tax bracket. Such is the example of this Bishop from a backwater of Asia Minor.

Not much is known of Nicholas’ early life, but it is supposed that he grew up in great wealth and gave it away. One of the most commonly repeated tales of Nicholas’ generosity has to do with a poor father who could not afford dowries for his three daughters. As a result, the girls could not be married and would be sold into slavery. When Nicholas heard of this family’s trouble, he slipped three bags of gold through their windows and into socks that had been hung to dry. The relation of this tale to the modern practice of hanging Christmas stockings is obvious. The story’s more potent aspect is the virtue of showing kindness to people we don’t know, without expectation of recognition or reward.

Each year at Christmastime, we are reminded of the value of giving by greeting cards, The Grinch, and ghosts of past, present and future. This year, the lesson may be more relevant than ever.

World markets and economies have suffered as of late and this would seem an odd time to be generous. Who can think of giving when there may not be enough to cover one’s own expenses? But recent troubles should at least have relieved people of the illusion of control. That is, no amount of hoarding or responsible miserliness can protect against calamity – cash can lose its value as dollars are slugged by inflation, seemingly safe investments can be lost or stolen – and in any case, you can’t take it with you. So the choice for anyone – rich, poor, or at some point of transition between the two – is what type of person do you wish to be?

Unlike many saints, Nicholas was not martyred, although he was persecuted and imprisoned for his Christian faith. In this way, it is Nicholas’ life, rather than his death, that informs his legacy. To wit, while the catalogue of holy people is crammed with saints marching off to be killed in nasty ways, Nicholas demonstrated how to live. A wealthy man, he decided to make kindness his currency.

And so the decision is laid before each of us. Any given moment, we may choose to be kind. We can keep Christmas every day of the year, following St. Nicholas’ example and Charles Dickens’ advice, giving generously without regret for the past or fear of the future. As the adage goes, “Yesterday is history, tomorrow is a mystery, but today is a gift – that is why it is called the present.”

Theo Caldwell is the author of Finn the half-Great.