Thanks to a European influence on my side of the family, I grew up celebrating the tradition of St. Nicholas Day on December 6th.
Many people just know St. Nicholas by the name of Santa Claus. While the modern figure of Santa derives from St. Nick, you’d hardly find this patron saint of children making toys at the North Pole.
The Story of St. Nicholas
The real man behind the fictitious modern day Santa Claus and Father Christmas was St. Nicholas of Myra. Born in 280 A.D. in Asia Minor, he lost his parents at an early age, though they left him great wealth when they died. The real St. Nicholas was known for giving anonymous gifts to help those in need and was eventually made a bishop of Myra.
The good bishop died on December 6th; thus this day is now Saint Nicholas Day.
For a fascinating explanation of how a man with a beard, reindeer, and the North Pole came to be associated with St. Nick, see this podcast episode about Santa Claus and the roots of the story in Finnish culture.
Why the Gift Giving?
The history of leaving shoes or stockings out on St. Nick’s Day likely stems from the story of him leaving small bags of gold for a man and his three daughters. During those times women had to bring a dowry to a marriage in order to find a good husband.
St. Nick heard of a man who had three daughters but could not afford the dowry. Without it, the daughters would most likely enter a life of prostitution instead of being able to marry. According to legend, St. Nick threw three bags of gold through their window at night (some say down the chimney) where they found them the next morning. This saved them from a life at a brothel and cemented his place as the patron of gift-giving.
St. Nicholas Day Around the World
Various cultures around the world celebrate the feast of St. Nicholas. It’s also observed in Orthodox and Catholic faiths (and sometimes protestant Christian ones). Our own family tradition is a hybrid of several cultural traditions related to St. Nick.
This is how some cultures around the world remember this day:
Shen’Kollë in Greece
Greece (as well as Albania, Serbia, and Bulgaria), celebrate St Nicholas on the eve of his feast day, December 5th. This day is known as Shen’Kolli i Dimnit (Saint Nicholas of Winter). In these cultures, this day is one of fasting, not gift-giving. In fact, on this day, most people abstain from meat, fast completely, or prepare a feast to eat just after midnight.
Sinterklaas in Belgium & Netherlands
In these countries, children leave their boots in front of the fireplace for St. Nicholas. Often, they include a carrot or a treat for his horses Legend has it that he arrived with his horses via sleigh or steamboat in these areas.
St. Nicholas and Père Fouettard in France
In France, St. Nicholas arrives on December 6th and gives children small gifts and chocolates. In the weeks leading up to this day, parents and grandparents tell stories of the legend of St. Nick. This included a disturbing but popular one.
The story goes that three children wandered away and got lost. A butcher lured them into his shop where he killed them and salted them away in a large tub. According to legend, St. Nicholas revived the boys and brought them home to their families. (At least there’s a happy ending!)
This story earned St. Nicholas his reputation as a protector of children in France. The butcher (known as “Père Fouettard,” meaning “Father Whipper”) is imagined to follow St. Nicholas in penance. He’ll leave lumps of coal or even whip misbehaving children. In France, statues and paintings often portray this event, showing the saint with children in a barrel.
Sankt Nikolaus and Krampusnacht in Germany and Austria
The way our family honors St. Nicholas mainly centers on this tradition. In Germany and Austria, children leave out a boot for St. Nicholas and receive small toys, coins, or candy. In these areas, St. Nicholas still dresses like a bishop and is often portrayed on a horse. Like the French story, a sinister companion accompanies St. Nick, in this case, the even more terrifying demon-like Krampus.
In these areas, they don’t mess around with an Elf on the Shelf to encourage kids to be good. They invoke the legend of the Krampus! This beast is thought to punish children who misbehave. He’ll capture particularly naughty children in his sack and carry them away to his lair. The Krampus was derived from old pagan Winter Solistice celebrations and has roots in Germanic folklore. Its influence has spread to Austria and throughout parts of Europe.
December 5th is known as Krampus Night, or Krampusnacht, where the hairy devil appears on the streets. Traditionally young men dress up as the Krampus on the night of December 5th. They’ll roam the streets frightening children with rusty chains and bells.
Our St. Nicholas Day Traditions
Spooky stories are fun in their own way, but never fear … there’s a more cheerful way to celebrate St. Nicholas Day! He was a good bishop known for helping others, after all. We honor St. Nicholas feast day in our family by celebrating in a few ways. The result is an adaptation of a mix of celebrations from around the world. Having some holiday fun well before Christmas morning is a great way to kick off Advent.
Leaving Shoes or Boots Out on December 5th
We leave out a shoe or boot in the hallway on the evening of December 5th for St. Nick’s arrival. This is similar to the idea of doing stockings, though we do that as well on Christmas Day. In the boots, my kids usually find:
- Coins: Each child receives some quarters in their shoe to signify the money St. Nicholas gave.
- Healthy Treats: Instead of lots of candy canes and sugary treats I’ll leave some healthy treats. These can include dark chocolate, small bags of nuts, or homemade marshmallows.
- Oranges: These signify the gold St. Nick gave away and my kids love oranges this time of year. We didn’t use to get them during the winter, but now we live in the south they’re in season even when the Christmas tree is up!
Random Acts of Kindness
The most important lesson from the legend of St. Nicholas is his generosity. To help us all remember this, we make a point to do random acts of kindness this time of year. We brainstorm creative ways to help those in need in our local area. We’ll then set about our “secret” mission to bring some joy to others.
In the past, we’ve done things like:
- Drop off grocery store gift cards to families in need.
- Give a big box of wrapped gifts and clothes to families who need them.
- Anonymously pay the utility bills of someone in need.
- Wrap gifts or donate items to local foster programs.
The list of possibilities is endless, and it’s always a good lesson in gratitude for all our blessings.
The Traveling Christmas St. Nicholas (or Angel)
This is perhaps the most fun tradition and one I hope you’ll consider starting in your own area. In the spirit of St. Nicholas Day, we start a traveling Christmas St. Nicholas (or Angel) tradition. It sparks generosity all over our area. Here’s how it works:
- Get some kind of small St. Nicholas statue or angel statue.
- Think of another family in your area you want to pass on the statue to and something kind to do for them. This could be a small gift, a family activity, or just an act of kindness.
- Anonymously leave the statue on their front door mat one evening. Include a letter that they’ve been touched by the spirit of Christmas generosity and it’s their turn to pass on a kind act. We also print out a paper that “We’ve been visited by St. Nicholas.” This way they can post it in their front window so others know they’ve already been visited.
Whether you celebrate St. Nicholas Day or not, a random act of kindness is a great way to honor the Christmas season. We certainly need more of it in the world. Happy Feast of St. Nicholas, from my family to yours!
Does your family celebrate St. Nicholas Day? What are your traditions?