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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.

A chance hearing of a symphonic biography stirred memories of our country’s racism in the 1960s: riots, maiming, burnings, beatings, deaths, looting, torture, imprisonments, hospitalizations, bombings, and KKK villainy. Snarling attack dogs, fire hoses, tear gas, riot protective gear, and batons were prominent in the evening news.

Of the voices of protest none was more charismatic than Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., Baptist preacher and magnet for the Civil Rights Movement. Despite his 1968 assassination, his dream breathes on in the work of many, including the composer Joseph Schwantner and his symphonic biography: New Morning for the WorldDaybreak for Freedom (1982).

A narrator stands before the symphony orchestra and within the colorful and bombastic strains of this twenty-seven minutes piece melds ten excerpts from Dr. King’s speeches and essays. Referenced are the 1955 Montgomery bus boycott; the 1958 “Stride Toward Freedom;” the 1963 letter from the Birmingham jail; the 1963 “I Have a Dream speech” delivered from the steps of the Lincoln Memorial; the 1965 Selma march for voting rights; and King’s “Mountain” speech, the night before his death.

Each excerpt strikes dissonance within the instruments of the orchestra and scrapes festering wounds; yet, winds complement the depths of King’ vision, its crucifying tension sustained by prayer.

Although it’s possible to isolate salient characteristics of the 1960’s devastation in our cities, the nasty scourge of racism still whips the divide between rich and poor, gouges the social fabric with mistrust and animosity, and incites more blood-letting. Infections and fevers run rampant. In my perception, unwellness pervades the air.

Yet, I cannot be silenced. Just as Spirit buoyed Dr. King through harrowing trials into eternal life, just as Spirit moved Joseph Schwantner to compose New Morning for the WorldDaybreak for Freedom, to honor his vision, just so will Spirit enlarge our fearful hearts to rejoice, despite setbacks of any stripe. This, too, will pass.

December’s true colors are found in a pot of homemade vegetable soup warming on the stove in the late afternoon darkness. Such was yesterday’s surprise with the gift from my nephew and his wife. I was impatient for the first spoonful, having enjoyed their soup before on other occasions, though never quite the same.

It was rosemary, I think, that flavored the organic vegetables and bits of chicken and kept me spooning for more until my bowl was clean. Buttered toast stretched the meal’s enjoyment. As I placed the leftover soup in the fridge, I reflected upon the implications of this savory gift.

True, the soup satisfied my hunger. True, there was another serving left. True, I was aware of the labor involved: the hours of selecting the organic vegetables and preparing them: carrots, celery, artichokes, beans, peas, zucchini, butternut squash, greens, onion, asparagus, potatoes, tomatoes, beans, and others I could not make out. Addition of chicken pieces added texture and subtle flavor.

But the vegetable soup was also a remedy for the soul: prepared in love and offered in love. Only within this ambiance are hungers, of any kind, fully satiated. And this is what really matters. We remember that Jesus invites us to feed the hungry. Tim and Karen, my nephew and his wife, did just that: I was fed and am grateful …

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