December 6th marks the celebration of St. Nicholas Day worldwide.
Saint Nicholas is the basis for the American Christmas character Santa Claus. The “jolly ol’ elf” we think of in America is built around the Clement Moore poem, “Twas the night before Christmas.” St. Nicholas was actually a Christian bishop from Turkey, who became the patron saint of children, sailors, archers, the downtrodden, and even pawnbrokers!
Stories have it that this remarkable man, who is a present-day household name across the globe, performed three miraculous feats. One of these acts, saving three young girls from slavery by providing a dowry.
Dowries continue to be an important part of family economics in parts of Asia and Africa, and are part of the inheritance system. In cultures where women had restrictions on owning property, marriages often involved a transfer of property from one family to another. Sometimes it has involved the girl’s family providing money to the husband’s family, as a kind of payment for “taking her off their hands.” At other times, the girl took her portion of the family inheritance with her, and continued to control and use it to support the new family. At other times, the groom’s family paid a “bride price” for the privilege of bringing her into their family.
In cultures that continue to expect dowries, or bride prices, women’s rights suffer. It is interesting, therefore, that our custom of exchanging gifts at Christmas originated from a story of St. Nicholas helping out three women who were suffering because of the system of dowries.
Check out this Everyday Economics Lesson about the history of St. Nicholas and how this one miraculous act involved economics. This packaged lesson is for you to enjoy and share with your family, friends, and students!
Dowries in India
1. According to the St. Nicholas story, the original gifts were given from the privileged to the poor. Today, gift-giving is more of a trade arrangement, where people give to each other reciprocally. Does that change the nature of the transaction? For the better or worse?
2. The gift of a dowry from St. Nicholas to the three daughters was part of a system in which women had different property rights than men. How important are equal treatment (i.e. the rule of law), and property rights in promoting justice?
3. Today, the idea of dowries is only preserved in the United States and Europe through marriage customs like the bride’s family paying for the wedding, and the groom’s for the rehearsal dinner. But in places like India, the custom persists. Some of this persistence is no doubt do to exploitation and discrimination, but customs like dowries – even when imposed from the outside, as in India – often respond to some real problem. Can you think of legitimate problems the dowry system may address, which would need to be solved, in order to be replaced with a fairer system? (Examples might include the problem of inheritance, when dividing family property would make it unproductive, such as with farmland, or the need to provide women with independent income in societies where few women earn income, as in Saudi Arabia).