Among the strongest memories that most of us form as children are the memories of waking up to gifts during the December holiday season. Whether it is December 6, St. Nicholas Day (when children in many countries find that jolly old St. Nick has left something in their stockings or shoes), or December 25 (when Santa Claus leaves gifts in stockings or under the tree), Christians and non-Christians alike in many countries celebrate the Nativity of Christ and the memory of St. Nick with the giving of gifts. It is astounding how powerful the legacy of St. Nicholas is, that children everywhere, even those who have no inkling of Christ or the saints, still hold dear the generosity of St. Nick.
The tradition of associating gifts with St. Nicholas is an old one, and the original story has nothing to do with consumerism, Black Friday, Cyber Monday, or any other material ‘holiday.’ According to the hagiographies of St. Nick (who lived in the 3rd and 4th centuries in Myra- present day Turkey), St. Nicholas learned of a poor family who were barely surviving. Not only was this family poor, but all three children were girls. At the time, this was a double tragedy, for girls didn’t have the same kind of opportunities to earn incomes that they have today. This meant that the three girls would have to be married off and given away to someone else who could keep them from starving. However, even this was impossible. Without any money, the family could not provide a dowry, and so instead of being eligible brides, the only prospects that the girls had was to be sold into slavery, very likely to become sex slaves. St. Basil the Great comments on this phenomenon, imploring the rich to give their money to the poor, because poor families had to choose between letting their children starve and selling their children into slavery.
So it was with these girls. St. Nicholas heard about the plight of this family, and in his compassion secretly visited the house one night. Upon seeing three pairs of stockings drying over the hearth, St. Nick tossed in three gold coins (sometimes bags of coins) which would become the girl’s dowries. In this way, St. Nicholas saved the girls from being trafficked. The association between St. Nicholas and gift-giving traditionally traces to this act of compassion. Santa Claus’s original present wasn’t an iPhone or anything else. It was freedom from slavery and human trafficking.
It is estimated that today there are over 40 million victims of slavery and human trafficking in the world. 75% of victims are women and girls. For far too people today, the strongest memories they have from childhood are not waking up to gifts in December but of being trafficked. For those of us who celebrate St. Nicholas (whether directly on his feast or indirectly by celebrating Santa on Christmas), it is sobering to remember that our gift-giving traditions are rooted in something much more life-giving than consumerism.
As such, this year as we celebrate St. Nicholas and the Nativity of Our Saviour, we ask that you consider donating to St. Nicholas’s Purse, an initiative of In Communion aimed at raising money for victims of human trafficking. 100% of proceeds raised will be donated to an Orthodox organization doing practical work to rescuing victims and helping them heal.
This holiday season, please consider giving to this initiative on behalf of yourself, your parish or family, or as a donation on someone else’s behalf. If you are unable to give, or even if you do give, please also consider praying for all victims of trafficking, and please consider doing what you can to educate others on this important issue. Let us pray that we may emulate the generosity of St. Nicholas, not to our own enrichment, but for the salvation and safety of others.
Editor, In Communion