By Harriet P. Gross
Well, the back-story is not all hearts and flowers. In a time when the Roman Emperor Claudius was persecuting the Catholic Church, he prohibited young people from marrying because he needed lots of soldiers for his wars and believed that single men would be better fighters because they had no wives and children to worry about. Valentine, a priest at that time, performed defiant, secret Christian marriages; he was caught, imprisoned, tortured and finally sainted for keeping the faith.
But there is another saint who was a real romantic, and with a sort of Jewish connection: none other than Santa Claus: Jolly Old Nicholas himself!
There is more legend than known truth about this priest who became a bishop and finally a saint. Historically correct fact, however, is that he was born in today’s Turkey, and even as a boy began performing what people then perceived to be wonders. But here is his most important story, one about good works rather than miracles: Nicholas was not a poor man; he came from wealth, but he never kept much for himself. A sort of hobby of his was giving it away to make sure that poor families had enough dowry money to marry off their daughters. One snowy winter night, he delivered three bags of gold to a needy couple with three daughters, and it’s believed he made his delivery by tossing them down the chimney!
This tale traveled far, and when Nicholas was canonized, people began giving each other presents in his name on Dec. 6, his designated Saint’s Day. So the idea of Christmas gifts may be as much in memory of this beloved priest as it is of the Magi who gave their gold, frankincense and myrrh to the Baby Jesus.
Now, here’s the Jewish part: In dark European times, when Jews’ opportunities to earn money were few, they were often allowed (sometimes even required) to take on tasks that the Catholic Church barred its members from performing. Money-lending was one of them, as everyone who has read Shakespeare’s “Merchant of Venice” well knows. Jews were commandeered to do this, and did so frequently by taking items in pawn. All sorts of things were brought for monetary exchange, and of course had to be held for a period of time in the off chance that their owners came back with funds to redeem them. Most often, however, the pawnbroker would retain those things. But — what to do with them then? If they were bolts of cloth or articles of clothing, he could make things from them. And this was the start of our people’s prowess in the needle trades, which accounts for the many subsequent years of Jewish dominance in ladies wear!
Ah, but what about Nicholas? Well, it’s now time to remember about his golden generosity. Somewhere along the line, those shopkeepers adopted his three bags full as their symbol, and until most recent times, pawn shops were marked by three gold-colored balls, either hanging from a pole outside the store’s door or painted on its front window. And the Catholic Church, which assigns certain titular “responsibilities” to every saint, long ago named good-hearted Nick as the Patron Saint of Pawnbrokers!
Maybe if we start thinking about this today, we can remember it next winter, and use the information to help diffuse the annual December Dilemma. But for now: Happy Valentine’s Day, everyone!
(BTW: The birthday of my mother, of blessed memory, was Dec. 6 — a good Catholic day for presents. But more appropriate for such a Jewish balabusta would have been July 26, the day of Anne, Patron Saint of Housewives!)