By JESSICA DILLON
PUBLISHED: THURSDAY, DECEMBER 7, 2017 AT 5:15 AM
NORTH JAVA — St. Nicholas will not bring gifts to the children this Sunday. Instead, the children will bring gifts to him. At Holy Family National Polish Catholic Church in North Java, it’s nothing more, and nothing less, than a holiday tradition.
The parish was reborn out of the former St. Nicholas Catholic Church, closed by the Diocese of Buffalo 10 years ago. There, the feast of St. Nicholas had always been a cause for celebration. The initial closure, and then reopening, and reopening of the church five years later, hasn’t changed that.
“Once again, the children will come with their toys, and once again, St. Nicholas will share his story,” said Rev. Matt Kawiak.
Though the real St. Nick passed away in the fourth century, his legacy lives on — most popularly in the stories of a magical, gift-giving Santa Claus who comes down chimneys to deliver presents on Christmas Eve.
In the Catholic tradition, though, St. Nicholas is the patron saint of children and numerous other causes — he is known colloquially as “everyone’s saint.”
The legend of Santa Claus grew out of the stories told about him — he supposedly threw bags of gold through windows to help pay the dowries of a poor man’s daughters and used his entire inheritance to spread goodness throughout the world. So at Holy Family, the gifts that the children bring — some are gently used, some are brand new — are gathered and then distributed by Angel Action to children in need.
“I believe this annual celebration of St. Nicholas inviting children to bring gifts is God’s way of reminding these children of what Christmas is all about,” Kawiak said. “The spirit of Christmas is not about how much they are going to get or whose feelings would be hurt if they don’t give something of value.
“Here, these children are learning that what’s special about Christmas is not their concerns about what they are going to get for Christmas,” he continued. “Rather, their only concern is about giving something special to another child who would have no presents to open on Christmas.”
That’s something Ben Kibler, a local parishioner, gets to experience firsthand. He serves each year as the man, the myth, the legend, donning white robes and a curly-haired wig and beard, sharing with children the story of St. Nicholas and his historical good deeds.
“I have to admit I’m pretty excited this year more than others,” Kibler said, referencing the fact that his first child, Patrick, was born just over a month ago.
“It just opens my eyes, I guess, to see how he’s going to react and what it means to him. I went to the same church as a little kid and I know what it always meant to me...”
And so, while he eagerly anticipates how his own child will embrace the stories of God and His love, especially during the Christmas season, he gets to witness other young children celebrate the true meaning of the holiday.
“It’s awesome,” Kibler said. “It’s a little different now because — I mean, five years ago, the kids who started doing this are now young adults ... To see their little brothers and sisters come up, that’s what I like best, just seeing the new faces.”
He’s not alone.
“I think that having the St. Nicholas celebration is really special,” said Molly Haungs, a four-year religious education teacher at the parish. “I think it’s a unique concept to bring a gift to St. Nick instead of St. Nick bringing a gift to them.”
Haungs, the mother of a 3-year-old and a 3-week-old, hopes that this celebration, and all that it symbolizes, will one day help to instill good Christian values in her own children as well.
“I think the idea that we’re teaching these little kids that Christmas is not just about getting, it’s about giving, is great,” Haungs said. “My kids, they’re still young, but I hope that’s something they learn at a young age.”
Just last week, she devoted an entire class to teaching parish children to be thankful for all that they receive and experience during the holiday season.
“Our lesson focused on teaching the children that whenever we receive presents or any of the other amazing, magical things during Christmas time, we just take a second and thank God for giving us his son, which is the reason for the season.”
She said that the celebration is one that helps her, too, to step back from the chaos and “bah humbugs” to truly embrace the meaning of the holiday.
“Looking at the kids who understand the season and understand that they’re so blessed to have what they have is amazing,” Haungs said. “It’s so easy with how busy we all are to get stressed and bogged down, but when you see Christmas through the eyes of the kids who understand the reason for the season, it’s so much more profound and meaningful and special.”
The celebration will take place Sunday at Holy Family Parish, 4316 Route 98, North Java, at 10 a.m. All are encouraged, but not required, to bring a gift. The service is open to everyone.
“Let me extend a special invitation to all parents to bring their children and grandchildren to meet St. Nicholas and truly celebrate the spirit and joy of the season,” Kawiak said. “I am very humbled by the generosity and compassion of this faith community. Our children inspire of all us to share of gifts not only at Christmas but every day throughout the year.”