First of all: DON’T PANIC. This article is not an attempt to suggest that you or your children should go without gifts or gift-giving this Christmas. Quite the opposite. Gift-giving has for centuries been part of the season of Christmas, in remembrance of the gifts of the Magi (whom we commemorate on Christmas Day as the first converts to Christianity), and Christ the Gift of Salvation.
Yet Orthodox Christians have an arguably more ancient custom of gift giving on the feast of St. Nicholas, the bishop of Myra, who is remembered as a merciful helper of orphans. He is known by tradition to have snuck gifts into shoes and stockings and down through chimneys to provide dowries for young women who might otherwise have ended up being sold into life on the street.
The feast of St. Nicholas takes place nineteen days before Christmas, and has become a traditional day for Orthodox Christians to exchange gifts, leaving the Lord’s Nativity as a uniquely spiritual feast day, free from commercialism and holiday kitch. I can honestly say I have never met someone who has objected to getting their gifts nineteen days early, in memory of this great saint (who also happens to be a great defender of the Orthodox doctrine of Christ’s Divinity).
At a time when many people are rightly concerned about the need to “Keep Christ in Christmas”, Orthodox Christians have a long-observed tradition that enables us to do just that: to make kids (and adults) happy with early presents, to de-commercialize the Birth of Christ, and to preserve the Holy Tide of Christmas as that which it should truly be: A Holy Day.
Maybe your family has done this all along. Maybe you wish you had. And maybe – just maybe – this Orthodox custom will catch on, to the blessing and help of many, if we let it.