Saint Nicholas and Mother Seton: The Gift of Generosity - Seton Shrine
Saint Nicholas - Seton Shrine

Saint Nicholas and Mother Seton: The Gift of Generosity

Saint Nicholas was a fourth century bishop known for his gift-giving to the poor, which inspired the story of Santa Claus. It was the love of God that inspired both St. Nicholas and St. Elizabeth Ann Seton to give generously and care for others throughout their lifetimes.

“How can you lie to your children?” one mom demanded of another on Twitter last week.

“How can you deprive your children of the magic of Christmas?” came the retort.

It happens every year — let the Santa Wars begin!

It has been my experience that intelligent, well-intentioned people fall on both sides of the Santa Claus debate. Ultimately, I think that how you feel about Santa Claus and what you teach your kids about his existence is largely determined by how you were raised.

If you were raised believing in Santa Claus, and it was a beautiful, magical experience for you, you are going to want to share that experience with your own kids. If you were raised not believing in Santa (as I was), you will likely find the idea of telling your children that Santa Claus is real to be absurd.

Regardless of how any of us might feel about Santa, we do know that the man behind the myth, Saint Nicholas, was a very real person. Nicholas was a bishop who lived in Myra (modern day Turkey) in 270-343 AD. The traditional red robes he wore as bishop were the inspiration for the fur-trimmed red suit and black boots Santa Claus is known for today.

But an even more important legacy than St Nicholas’ clothing was his devotion to the poor. In one traditional story, St. Nicholas becomes aware of a poor father of three daughters. The father cannot afford dowries for his daughters and fears that they will be sold into slavery. Moved with pity for this family, and especially for the plight of the young girls, ­­­­St. Nicholas sneaks by the house over the course of three separate nights and throws a purse of gold coins through the window. With St. Nicholas’ anonymous gifts, the father is then able to marry off his daughters to good men.

Legend has it that when St. Nicholas threw one of the purses, it landed in a stocking that was hung by the fire to dry; thus was born the traditional practice of hanging stockings or leaving out shoes for St. Nicholas to fill with goodies on his feast day each year on December 6.

A beautiful way to honor St. Nicholas on his feast day would be to give anonymous gifts to those in need. That’s the real spirit of Santa Claus!

Centuries after St. Nicholas’ lifetime, in the late 1700s and early 1800s, St. Elizabeth Ann Seton demonstrated a similar thoughtfulness for the poor, especially for poor young women. In her early life and marriage, Elizabeth had a fine home and attended fancy parties and balls as a respected member of the wealthy mercantile class in New York City. But when her husband died, she was left virtually destitute, with five children to care for.

In her own new experience of poverty, Elizabeth did not focus on herself but turned her attention to others, especially young people who were poor and uneducated. With her three daughters, her sisters-in-law, and a few other young women, she founded the Sisters of Charity of St. Joseph’s, devoted to living a simple life and educating the needy. The Sisters were given property in Maryland where, with few resources, they established a boarding school, and a school for poor young girls. In a time when few were concerned with educating the poor, especially young girls, Elizabeth saw that education was the only way for many young women to escape poverty, and she worked tirelessly to provide them with skills that would ensure that they would either be able to support themselves or marry well.

Since the time of St. Nicholas, his story has spread to all corners of the world. His generous spirit is the inspiration behind the “Christmas spirit” that moves us today to give to those in need during the Christmas season.

In a similar way, the spirit of Mother Seton lives on today. The school she founded was only the beginning. She and her Sisters inspired the growth of the Catholic parochial school system in the United States, which today serves and educates over two million students, offering many young people the opportunity to escape poverty through education.

It was love of God that inspired both St. Nicholas and St. Elizabeth Ann Seton to give generously and care for others throughout their lifetimes. This Advent, we can continue to spread the legacies of these two great saints as we give gifts to friends and loved ones. But when we do, we should also consider those who are in poverty, who have needs greater than our own, and do what we can to love them and provide for them as well. By practicing love and care for the poor, especially those who have no way of returning the gift, we can best prepare our hearts to receive Jesus, the greatest gift of all.

DANIELLE BEAN is a writer and popular speaker on Catholic family life, parenting, marriage, and the spirituality of motherhood. She is the former publisher and editor-in-chief of Catholic Digest, and the author of several books for women including Momnipotent, You’re Worth It! and her newest book, You Are Enough. She is also creator and host of the Girlfriends podcast and a popular speaker on a variety of subjects related to Catholic family life, parenting, marriage, and the spirituality of motherhood. Learn more at

Image: St. Nicholas, Titian, 1563, Wikimedia-Public Domain

This reflection was previously published.

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