Father Czeslaw Krysa ensures his parishioners at St. Casimir are aware of the significance of St. Nicholas. The beloved saint is near and dear not only to his own heart, but to many of those in Eastern European Catholic Churches as well. St. Nicholas visits the parish each year on his feast day, Dec. 6, to teach children to pray.
In presenting this version of St. Nicholas, rather than what he calls the "capitalist elf" with a white beard, red suit and jolly laugh from the North Pole whose helpers are ubiquitous in malls during the Advent and Christmas season, Father Krysa hopes to reacquaint children with the original meaning of his legacy.
"St. Nicholas is the great, great, greatest uncle of the capitalist elf - that is what I call him," said Father Krysa. "He is the original protector of children, and there is a legend about him saving three young girls from being sold into slavery by leaving them a dowry on their windowsill. He also saved three boys from an ornery shopkeeper who wanted to drown them in a barrel of pickles."
"One of his secrets is that St. Nicholas usually leaves what I call 'secret gifts.' In other words, there is no little card that says 'to' and 'from.' It just says, 'to,'" he added.
The man known as St. Nicholas was born in 270 A.D. in the village of Patara, in present-day Turkey, to wealthy parents who were devout Christians. After both of his parents died, he used his vast inheritance to serve others and preach his faith until he eventually became Bishop of Myra, a city in Turkey.
Father Krysa recalled how, after St. Nicholas' death in 343 A.D., he appeared repeatedly to sailors who were in trouble at sea because of storms, so today he remains the patron saint of sailors, particularly in Eastern Europe. As a result, he is sometimes depicted not only on a horse or on foot, but also in a boat. In Western culture, he is primarily known as the patron saint of children. He is also identified as the patron saint of falsely accused prisoners, since he himself was imprisoned for supporting his beliefs.
"His protection and generosity were what he extended during his lifetime," Father Krysa added. "I've known him my whole life, and make sure that he's present every year around his feast day. My mother made sure he came to our house, and we had to hang a stocking on Dec. 5 in the evening, into which St. Nicholas put oranges, candy canes, washcloths, soap, toothpaste and a toothbrush."
In the famous poem "The Night Before Christmas," the capitalist elf is referred to by name as St. Nick. Santa Claus, as the capitalist elf is more commonly known, is an Anglicized form of "Sinterklaas," the Dutch name for St. Nicholas, Father Krysa said. He is still widely honored in the Mediterranean world. Father Krysa has visited St. Nicholas' tomb in Bari, Italy, where most of his relics are kept today.
"The fact that he really existed is one thing. The fact is that he is a sign of God's generosity and bounty. We have a saying in Polish: wherever he walks, everything grows; everything comes alive, even the grain. I also personally have a collection of figurines that were once on display, about 300 different figurines from all over the world, of St. Nicholas," Father Krysa said. "If I could choose my own name, I would have chosen it as Nicholas. I see how much joy comes into kids' lives."
"One of the things St. Nicholas does when he visits is, he kind of quizzes the kids on their prayers, if they know the Sign of the Cross and how to pray," he added. "If the kids are very little, it's a Sign of the Cross, fold your hands, and ask where Jesus was born, parts of the Christmas story - who came to greet him, those kinds of things, to make them aware. When he visits a group of people, he interacts with them by telling stories and asking questions about how they know Jesus."
Since St. Casimir is in a historically Polish part of East Buffalo, bordering Cheektowaga, Father Krysa hopes to teach children via a Polish tradition. "One of the things we have been trying to encourage is family traditions, and one way of doing that is inviting St. Nicholas to come over and visit, but also to remind parents to invite him to their houses, where he makes the secret visits," he also said.
"It's a human, close, intimate, fun connection with God in preparation for Jesus' coming. You know that when St. Nicholas Day has come, Jesus' birthday, the Nativity, is not far off."