By G. Jeffrey MacDonald

When children write to Santa, they address letters to the North Pole. But when time comes to teach them about the real St. Nicholas, who loved children and gave gifts in secret, queries from across the globe lead to an elf-free workshop at the home of Carol Myers in Holland, Mich.

There Myers, age 75 and a member of Grace Episcopal Church, runs the St. Nicholas Center. It is a virtual center: a website for all things related to Nicholas, the fourth-century Bishop of Myra whose generous ways and devotion to Christ created a number of today’s beloved Christmas traditions. Displaying gold ornaments, hanging stockings, putting out shoes, and hiding a single orange are among the yuletide customs tracing to the saint’s life.

Myers does the research, writes the prose, and codes the HTML. When orders arrive for St. Nick cards, kits, or figurines, she scurries to find them in her attic. Then she carries them down two flights of stairs for shipping across the United States and internationally.

The center is a nonprofit ministry that requires attention and energy every day, she said, but it is worth it.

“In this country, it’s the church taking back its own,” Myers said. “St. Nicholas belongs to the church. And St. Nicholas can speak. It’s bringing the sacred back into the holiday and not letting it get too secular.”

Established in the early 2000s with help from former Anglican Communion spokesman Jim Rosenthal, the center has become a hub of ecumenical resources. They are used largely among Roman Catholics, Orthodox, and Anglicans who mark saints’ days, and in a few Baptist and Reformed settings, Myers said.

Shop sales and donations help cover costs. The site often offers free guidance on how to teach about and celebrate the real St. Nicholas. He is known as patron saint of sailors and pawnbrokers, yet his resolve to help the needy and defend those wrongly imprisoned resonates especially well today.

“He really is the patron saint of social justice,” Myers said.

Myers relates to the craving for deeper insight that drives many of the million-plus who visit the site annually. She knows the challenge of trying to focus kids on Jesus’ birth in a culture obsessed with Santa and consumption.

“It all started because, when our children were small, I wanted them to know there was a person of faith behind Santa Claus,” Myers said.

Much of the center’s work still involves children. For example, St. Augustine’s Church in Rhinelander, Wis., has hosted activities using the center’s kits and panels for children ages five through 10. Kids would stay busy making paper miter hats and other crafts.

“While children would be coloring their shoe, the story of the real St. Nicholas was told,” said Jackie Cody, a member of St. Augustine’s, via email. “Parents enjoyed interpreting the panels for their children. It was a quiet time they could spend together in an otherwise very busy time.”

As a one-person operation, the center will need new leadership when Myers eventually steps down.

“I’m at an age where I’ve got to figure out how to get out of this,” Myers said. It would be difficult for someone to step into the organizational model, she said, because she does it as a volunteer ministry.

The center’s traveling exhibit and lending library of kits will likely be sold, Myers said, but the website and shop will soon move to a more user-friendly platform. She expects that change will help position the ministry for a long-term future.

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