On December 6th, Saint Nicholas Day recognizes the third-century saint who became an inspiration for the modern-day Santa Claus.
St. Nicholas is known for selling all his possessions and giving his money to the poor. Raised as a devout Christian, St. Nicholas dedicated his whole life to serving the sick and suffering.
After the Reformation, St. Nicholas was largely forgotten in Protestant Europe, although his memory was kept alive in Holland as Sinterklaas. There St. Nicholas is said to arrive on horseback on his feast day, dressed in a bishop’s red robe and mitre and accompanied by Black Peter (Zwarte Piet), variously described as a freed slave or a Moor, to help him distribute sweets and presents to good children or lumps of coal, potatoes, or switches to bad ones. The Dutch took the tradition to New Amsterdam (now New York City) in the American colonies, where he was transformed into Santa Claus by the English-speaking majority. His legend of a kindly old man was united with old Nordic folktales of a magician who punished naughty children and rewarded good children with presents. The resulting image of Santa Claus in the United States crystallized in the 19th century, and he has ever since remained the patron of the gift-giving festival of Christmas. In Britain he was largely replaced with Father Christmas.
Legendary stories about St. Nicholas later become part of the inspiration for the modern-day Santa Claus. For example, during the third century, a daughter’s chances of marriage increased when her father offered a large dowry to prospective husbands. One story tells of a poor father with three daughters. He had no dowry to offer.
It is thought that over the centuries the legendary St. Nicholas was merged with similar cultural and religious figures. Significant among these were the pagan Knecht Ruprecht and the Roman figure of Befana, as well as the Christ Child (Christkind, or Kris Kringle). A number of countries have traditions in which a malevolent character accompanies St. Nicholas. In France, Père Fouettard, who legend holds tried to cook three boys in a barrel of brine, is said to whip naughty children or give them coal. In Germany, Knecht Ruprecht serves as St. Nicholas’s servant and gives children who do not know their prayers sticks, stones, or coal. The terrifying devil-like Krampus is common in many central European counties and carries chains, bells, and sometimes a large basket with which to threaten naughty children.
Traditionally, families left their shoes by the fires at night so that they could dry. On three separate occasions, Ol’ St. Nicholas provided a dowry for each girl. Legend says he made gold appear in their shoes, drying by the fire.
In parts of northern Europe, particularly the Low Countries and some German-speaking areas, St. Nicholas Day has remained a time when children are given special cookies, candies, and gifts. In many places, children leave letters for St. Nicholas and carrots or grass for his donkey or horse. In the morning, they find small presents under their pillows or in the shoes, stockings, or plates they have set out for him. Oranges and chocolate coins are common treats that represent St. Nicholas’s legendary rescue of three impoverished girls by paying their marriage dowries with gold. Candy canes, which have the shape of a bishop’s crosier, are also given.
While St. Nicholas Day is not to be confused with Christmas, though similarities do exist. Traditions include leaving gifts in shoes (or stockings) or the exchange of small gifts. Another tradition suggests leaving treats for good boys and girls. However, the naughty ones receive a twig or chunk of coal.
Interesting facts associated with St. Nicholas:
- He is the patron saint of a great many causes. Some of the causes include sailors, travelers, clergy, school children, and thieves, to name a few.
- He was born in the village of Patar, located on the southeastern coast of modern-day Turkey.
- Buried in a tomb in Myra, water believed to have healing powers formed in his grave. It is called the Manna of Saint Nicholas.
- December 6th is also known as The Feast of St. Nicholas, widely celebrated in Europe.
How to Observe St. Nicholas Day
Incorporate some Saint Nicholas Day traditions into your holiday season. Slip a gift or surprise into someone’s shoe. It doesn’t have to be anything elaborate.
- You could leave a special note or a small wrapped piece of chocolate.
- Leave a coin or an ornament for the tree.
- Tuck a stress ball or a new pair of socks into a loved one’s pair of shoes.
- A fun air freshener or small bath bomb are two more fun gifts to sneak into a pair of shoes.
- Bake St. Nicholas Bread
- Bake a variety of cookies and share them with neighbors