Leave No Trace: The Joy of Giving Secret Gifts

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Jack comes to me as I stir oatmeal on the stove. He tap dances in place, excitement oozing from him. “Do you think Jason knows it was from me?” he asks of the note he secretly slipped into Jason’s backpack at co-op yesterday.

I tell him I don’t know.

“I didn’t sign it,” he tells me for the hundredth time. “Do you think he knows?”

I just smile at him. “Why do you think it’s so fun to give a secret gift?”

He cocks his head and stares past me for a moment before his eyes meet mine again. “I don’t know.” He grins. “It just is.”

“I’ve been reading about St. Nicholas,” I tell him, “and one of the most well-known stories about him involves a secret gift.” I tell him the story—how a poor man’s daughters had no dowry and were destined for “a life of poverty,” I tell Jack, but really they were destined for a life of prostitution. Nicholas, hearing of their plight, concocts his secret-gift plan.

I like to think of him sliding silently through Myra’s streets, his dark cloak blending with the dark air of the night, until he reaches the girls’ home: a ground floor window, covered with cloth that flutters in the slight night breeze, three small purses of gold slipped through the opening, coins clinking softly as the purses fall to the floor inside the house, Nicholas smiling and slipping silently, invisibly back into the darkness.

I tell Jack we don’t know if this story is true, though I like to think it is. There’s another story about him, I say, that shows his great faith. There was a famine in Myra and people were dying of hunger. A ship filled with wheat sailed into port. Nicholas promised the sailors that if they would give their wheat to the people of the city, they would suffer no loss from the gift. The sailors agreed, giving fully half of their wheat to Nicholas to distribute. When the ship reached Constantinople and the cargo of wheat was weighed, the sailors learned they had just as much wheat as when they’d left their homeport.

We don’t know if that story is true, either, I tell Jack, but Nicholas later became the patron saint of sailors, so maybe it is. He smiles. We really know very little about the historical Nicholas, I tell him. He was the bishop of Myra at the time of the Nicene Council and was one of the men who signed the Creed. We also know that he was short—only five feet tall—and had a broken nose. Jack laughs.

That broken nose intrigues me. Was he in a fistfight as a young man, before turning his life to Christ? Did one of the sailors among whom he worked lash out in a drunken rage? Or did a particularly angry Arian pop him one during the Nicene Council? And did he return a nose for a nose or turn the other cheek?

I like to think that being who he was—known for his generosity and kindness—he responded to whatever blow broke his nose with a blessing.

Do not let your left hand know what your right hand is doing. Turn the other cheek. Faith as a mustard seed.

If the stories I told Jack are true, St. Nicholas carried the words of Jesus so deeply in his heart that they seeped out in his actions. The Words of Life shaped his living. As I peer ahead into this month of Advent, I wonder if the same is true of me? I wonder how I can bring blessing to others, trusting that God sees my secret deeds, trusting that He will provide for me, and my family, when we give.

I ask Jack if he’d like to play St. Nicholas this Advent. He just grins. He already knows the joy of giving secret gifts. We exchange conspiratorial glances and begin plotting how we’ll give in secret, slipping in and slipping out, leaving no trace of our presence save only a gift.


Kimberlee Conway Ireton is the author of The Circle of Seasons: Meeting God in the Church Year and the recently released memoir, Cracking Up: A Postpartum Faith Crisis. She lives in Seattle with her husband, four kids, two cats, and a whole lot of books.

Image by Emiliano Iko. Used with permission. Sourced via Flickr.

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