There was something about Christmas that left the Rev. Tony Harris a little cold. He would watch the frenzied crowds in their mad rush to purchase things and feel dispirited, like...

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There was something about Christmas that left the Rev. Tony Harris a little cold.

He would watch the frenzied crowds in their mad rush to purchase things and feel dispirited, like everyone was missing the point.

So 10 years ago, Harris, vice president for mission and ministry at Seattle University, decided he would fill people in on the origins of Christmas giving. He would do it in his own quiet way and teach them about St. Nicholas, a figure whose spotlight has, over time, been overshadowed by the girth of Santa Claus.

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Harris purchased St. Nick figurines, snow globes, small artistic representations and anything unusual that caught his eye. His collection grew to 150 and is now housed in the president’s office at the university.

Harris isn’t out to change people’s spending habits when it comes to Christmas. He’s just hoping to spread more awareness of the spirit of giving in a mindful, subtle manner.

“I think people are generally looking for meaning. And one of the frustrations of Christmas today is that the meaning is taken away,” he said.

For those of you who think St. Nicholas and Santa Claus are one and the same, Harris wants a few moments of your time.

Orthodox Catholics revere St. Nicholas as the patron saint of travelers, children, women seeking husbands and then some. St. Nicholas was born in 280 A.D. in Turkey and devoted his years to helping the poor and oppressed.

Harris said St. Nick’s spirit of giving morphed into the jolly Santa Claus — supersized into an American commercial icon.

“See this one?” He carefully held up a square block painted with the image of a dark-haired and dark-complexioned St. Nick. “See his features? His hair, his coloring, it’s more ethnic.

“The Santas we see today are white guys,” he said.

Harris can’t remember how much he has spent on the collection. There are some figures he bought for $2.95 and some that he shelled out more than $100 for. He’s always on the lookout for new figures and finds them online, at Christmas stores and even while vacationing in Aruba.

“You could have a whole room filled with Santas and it would just be a room filled with Santas,” he said. “But this means something.”

Harris grew up an only child in Salmon, Idaho. His mother loved Christmas. The collection is dedicated to her memory.

The figures make their big appearance before Dec. 6, the anniversary of the saint’s death, which is traditionally marked by a feast. After Christmas, the little St. Nicks spend the next 11 months folded in bubble wrap and plastic boxes.

Harris said he will eventually donate the figurines to a school named after St. Nicholas. Until then, he enjoys the looks on people’s faces when they see the collection.

“They drop in and look at it and leave with a smile,” he said. “You allow people to wonder about the history and the purpose.

“It doesn’t scream ‘Buy! Buy! Buy!’ ”

Sonia Krishnan: 206-515-5546 or skrishnan@seattletimes.com