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Many know the story of Santa Claus, but few know his precedent: St. Nicholas (289–343), born of wealthy parents in Turkey who died in an epidemic. His uncle, bishop of Patara took him in, raised him, and under his influence, Nichols was later ordained a priest. A pious man, he secretly gave away his inheritance to the poor.  

Thereafter, Nicholas continued selling gifts offered him and helping the poor, sick, and suffering. Stories of his generosity abounded

Three nights in a row, Nicholas had tossed bags of gold into a poor farmer’s hovel that landed in shoes next to the fireplace where they were drying. Nicholas knew that the farmer would have to sell his three daughters into servitude or prostitution, there being no dowry.

Even after Nicholas was named Bishop of Myra, with the challenging responsibilities of his office, he continued his secret alms-giving. So graced he was that he also became a miracle worker. He restored the lives of small children their father had soaked in brine until suitable to sell to the starving during the plague.

Nicholas also knew imprisonment under the Emperor Diocletian until released by Constantine in 325, after which he attended the Council of Nicaea and dealt with the Arian heresy.

Legends continued growing in Europe around this self-less man. Many imitated his practice of secret giving, honoring him on the day of his death, December 6, 343; he was only confirmed in sainthood in 1446 by Pope Eugene IV.

With the Protestant Reformation’s outlawing the veneration of the saints, Nicholas’s memory was only retained in the Netherlands where he was called Sinterklaas. Too important to leave behind, seventeen-century Dutch emigrants introduced Sinterklaas to New Amsterdam.

From Sinterklaas, Santa Claus slowly emerged, thanks to Clement Clark Moore’s 1820 poem, “An Account of a Visit from Santa Claus,” otherwise known as “The Night Before Christmas.” Then in 1881, Cartoonist Thomas Nash dressed Santa in a fur-trimmed red suit.

Today, many families still honor St. Nicholas’s practice of filling empty shoes near fireplaces or outside bedroom doors with goodies on his Feast Day.

“I write to shine a light on an otherwise dim or even pitch-black corner, to provide relief for myself and others.”  Words taped to the desk of the memoirist, Laura Munson, author of This Is Not the Story You Think It Is – a Season of Unlikely Happiness (2011).

Housewife and mother, she had managed to write fourteen novels that failed to attract the notice of publishers. Yet, she continued honing her skills until the sea-change called for a different tack.

Stung by an unforeseen marital crisis, Laura reaches for her journal and writes over a five-month period—jottings that later become raw material for a memoir. Her readers she calls “gentle friends.”

Backstories of her twenty-year marriage, their two children, and life in a farmhouse in a Montana glacial valley open the memoir. In the writerly process, Munson explores her own darkness, especially her nasty inner critic, “Sheila, her twin sister.”

Graced by grandmothers practiced in creating beauty in their homes, Laura does similarly in her vegetable and flower gardens: her response to her children’s needs and her mate’s identity crisis, as provider, triggered by a failed business venture.

Humor and honesty, the hallmarks of successful memoirs, are found in this one.

This Is Not the Story You Think It Is – a Season of Unlikely Happiness was listed on the New York Times Best Sellers List, and was promoted by Oprah and the Today Show.  With its writing, Laura Munson changed.

Talk about striking visuals at the beginning of Advent!

Talk about the artist’s imagination that juxtaposed these items in front of the main altar at St. Gerard Majella’s Church. The display engulfs worshipers in pregnant silence: simultaneous emptiness and fullness, a fitting manner to prepare for the Christ mysteries.

Each item speaks of rich symbolism. The sheepskin, positioned in the shape of a newborn, evokes the Israelites’ Passover lamb; its blood, smeared over their doorposts, directed the avenging angel’s slaughter of the Egyptians’ firstborn.

In the Christian tradition, Jesus of Nazareth was recognized as the Lamb of God (John 1:29), his bloody crucifixion and death resonating with the Passover Lamb; both wrought salvation: Israelites from Pharaoh’s enslavement and Christians from the bondage of sin.

In the gospel of John, Jesus dies at the precise moment that the unblemished Passover lamb is sacrificed in the Temple at Jerusalem.

Within the outline of the sheepskin, the blue fabric suggests the mantel of Mary, the Mother of Jesus, the woman who knew life, its joys and vicissitudes. The cruel crown of thorn and the jeweled one speak of Jesus as Suffering Servant and as King, frequent themes found in both Old and New Testaments.

And the straw-filled manger speaks of humility, critical to entering the Christ mysteries with their teachings; the rumpled white fabric, freed from swaddling clothes.

A simple arrangement in the sanctuary of this church, but one that nudges surrender to peace and joy—such happens within prayer.  

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