Today, Dec. 5, on the third day of Advent. We’ll consider a tradition that occurs tomorrow (Dec. 6th)—the commemoration of an historical figure who is actually an old friend to most of us.
Shoes and socks are important items. In Jesus’s world, the sandal reigned supreme. But for most of us, solid shoes and warm socks have a place, particularly in winter when they help us survive the icy elements.
I pay more attention to shoes than I used to. Living with Russians in our household, we’ve picked up the global tradition of removing shoes upon entering the house. It’s not something I grew up doing, although I have to admit, it does make it easier to find one’s shoes.
But the appeal of socks and stockings, is even more interesting to me. Think how many hours grandmas and moms in past eras had to spend knitting stockings for the family. What is cozier than a favorite pair of socks? Plus, good socks and stockings were, and still are, a luxury in some parts of the world. And they can be expensive! Certainly in my childhood, getting a run in our stockings was a big no-no (in part, a hold-over from the days of rationing during World War II).
Shoes and socks function as symbols, too. Baby’s baptismal socks sometimes get tucked into a keepsake box. First booties may undergo a grand preservation by bronzing and engraving them with the child’s name and birth date. Little can we imagine how we’ll battle to keep shoes and socks on a child’s feet as he grows!
Tomorrow, Dec. 6, is the day when St. Nicholas of Myra is celebrated across Christendom. That makes tonight St. Nicholas Eve, the time for the shoes and stockings to come out!
Yes, this tradition is the source of our “Christmas stockings.” On December 5th, children worldwide place their shoes and socks out tonight, with hopes they will be filled with a treat by St. Nicholas.
We’ve been focusing more on this tradition in recent years. The “gifts” don’t have to be large, or even physical items. Family members can gather poems, jokes, or favorite quotes to fill the shoes. An older sibling might make homemade coupons, offering a service to delight the recipient: perhaps an offer to walk the dog for a month, do all the dinner dishes, or spend more time playing “Play Dough” with the little ones. The goal is to enjoy the loveliness of the tradition (as opposed to racking up gifts).
And, indeed, that’s what I experienced last year on St. Nicholas Eve. I was working as a Smithsonian Study Leader on a ship. We were sailing the Mosel River as part of a 10-day tour of French and German Christmas Markets. To my surprise, our charming ship director invited us to put our shoes out in the corridor on St. Nicholas Eve. Some travelers knew this tradition, but many did not.
Around midnight, I couldn’t help poking my head out and snapping this picture, tickled to see how many of my very grown-up guests eagerly had set out their shoes. Quite a few, as you see. In the morning, people were delighted to find candy, fruit, and trinkets. You’d think they had received jewels. It was the talk of breakfast.
As with so many things in the human experience, the value of the symbol far exceeds its material content. Later that night, Dec. 6th, we docked and watched residents of the villages on either side come together, swimming in the icy water (some had wet suits, some did not). They carried lanterns and created a parade for an illuminated St. Nick (a real fellow), enthroned on a decorated wooden raft. The scene was gorgeous: the candles, the illuminated faces of the swimmers, St. Nicholas’s glittering garments, all against the dark, cold waters of the Mosel.
Of course, the history behind these traditions is a serious one, traced back to a 4th–century Bishop known today as Nicholas of Myra. In his most famous act of beneficence, he afforded three impoverished sisters each a bag of gold coins (or golden balls), which provided them with the dowry necessary for them to be married. From this particular event stems the concept of our St. Nick as a bringer of gifts. (On a completely different note, three golden balls became a medieval symbol for a pawnbroker’s shop.)
But the path to beatification and canonization for Nicholas was due not to this one deed, but to a multifaceted and complex life, including his role in preventing famine, saving citizens from punitive taxation, intervening in unjust executions, and his controversial actions at the famous Council of Nicea in 325.
His icon (wearing a white stole with black crosses) is among those most frequently found in both Orthodox (Eastern) and Catholic churches. For that matter, take any sizable city across Europe, Britain, Russia, Turkey, and even the United States. Count the number of churches named after Nikolaos, Nicholas, Nikolai, or Nikolsky. Think, too, of how many baby boys have been named after St. Nicholas, from priests and archbishops to kings and tsars.
All of this history, art, and spiritual meaning really does stand behind each shoe placed outside of a door on the eve of Dec. 5. So perhaps tonight you and your family might enjoy sharing in the “stocking” or “shoe” tradition. Or tomorrow you may want to look at the role Bishop Nicholas of Myra played in this early period of Christianity. Or you may wish to view the astonishingly beautiful icons of St. Nicholas created across the centuries. Each of these activities gives us yet another glimpse into the richness of the Advent season.