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Thanks to a European influence on both sides of the family, my husband and I both grew up celebrating the tradition of St. Nicholas Day on December 6th.
Many people just know St. Nicholas by the name Santa Claus. While the modern figure of Santa derives from St. Nick, you’d hardly find this patron saint of children making toys in the North Pole.
Who Was St. Nicholas?
The real man behind the fictitious modern day Santa Claus 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. He was known for giving anonymous gifts to help those in need and was eventually made a bishop.
The good bishop died on December 6th; thus this day is now St. 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 for St. Nicholas 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, saving them from a life at a brothel and cementing his place as the patron of gift giving.
St. Nicholas Day Around the World
The feast of St. Nicholas is celebrated around the world in various cultures. 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
In Greece (as well as Albania, Serbia, and Bulgaria), St. Nicholas is celebrated 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 or 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, as 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, including 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 protector of children in France. The butcher (known as “Père Fouettard,” meaning “Father Whipper”) is imagined to follow St. Nicholas in penance and 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 (and some other countries in this region), 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 often is 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 and to capture particularly naughty children in his sack and carry them away to his lair. The Krampus has roots in Germanic folklore and its influence has spread to Austria, southern Bavaria, South Tyrol, northern Friuli, Hungary, Slovenia, the Czech Republic, the Slovak Republic, and Croatia.
December 5th is known as Krampus Night, or Krampusnacht, in which the hairy devil appears on the streets. Traditionally young men dress up as the Krampus on the night of December 5th and roam the streets frightening children with rusty chains and bells.
How We Celebrate St. Nicholas Day
Spooky stories are fun in their own way, but never fear … there is a more cheerful way to celebrate St. Nicholas Day! He was a good bishop known for helping others, after all. We honor St. Nick’s feast day in our family by celebrating in a few ways, adapting a mix of celebrations from around the world.
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 on December 6th. This is similar to the idea of doing stockings, though we do that as well on Christmas Day. In the boots, our kids usually find:
- Coins: Each child receives some quarters in their shoe to signify the money St. Nicholas gave.
- Healthy Treats: We also give some healthy treats like dark chocolate, small bags of nuts, or homemade marshmallows.
- Oranges: These signify the gold St. Nick gave away and our kids love oranges this time of year (which we don’t usually get because they aren’t in season).
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, and 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 to spark 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 with a letter indicating that they’ve been touched by the spirit of Christmas generosity and that it is now their turn to pass on a kind act to another family in the area. We also print out a paper that “We’ve been visited by St. Nicholas” that they can post 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 and 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?
Discussion (24 Comments)
Oranges actually are in season in December!
Just what I was going to say!
I love how you have started it with Greece and all of the translation is in Albanian. 🙂 Made my day.
Thanks – this is a really great summary of various St. Nicholas traditions and I like your ideas of how how to celebrate with the kids and friends. We live in Germany, and Nikolaustag is really a lot of fun. Even the Krampus part. They usually run around town on the 6th causing mischief, and some of the costumes are amazing. And don’t forget to polish your boots before you put them out 🙂
I was born in Germany and grew up in Belgium but unfortunately I’m not sure I have any happy memories about this day. In belgium as you may not know… this tradition has created heated conversations about Blackface ” Black Piet” who in most people’s eyes represents a slave… Belgium and The Netherlands have fought hard to keep this tradition with Black piet alive although it has racists undertone. As a mom now, I struggle with the idea that I should celebrate this day when my child could be associated negatively with it. I love the way you have made it your own and it reminded me that traditions were created by us humans and we should not feel forced to celebrate it like others. Thank you
Yes, it’s changing slowly, but before the racist elements are completely eradicated? Still ongoing, especially in the debates of some of the conservative ‘opposition’.
Just the good news article I needed today as I am frustrated by the conflicting messages of Christmas. I love studying history and I appreciate how you boil it down to the essentials Katie! Keep it simple, keep it healthy and keep it about giving 🙂
Hi, I’m from the Netherlands, and it is customary nowadays to celebrate on the evening of December 5th, rather than the morning of December 6th. Sinterklaas arrives in the Netherlands some two weeks earlier on a steamboat, with his helpers. They are called Pete or Black Pete, and although they originated from the Krampus figure, the portrayal was changed to a more controversial figure, which is now slowly changing again (for which I am grateful!)
Children are usually allowed to put out their shoe a couple of times between Sinterklaas’ arrival, and his departure on December 6th. On the evening of the 5th we celebrate “Pakjesavond” or “Gifts night”. At some point during the evening there will be a heavy knock on the door, and a hand of candy and small gingernut cookies will be thrown into the hallway. When kids open the door, they will find a hessian sack with gifts. The whole family will then gather together to unwrap the gifts. In Belgium, kids will find their gifts on the table in the morning, unwrapped. When kids get older, and they are let in on the Sinterklaas secret, they will start making surprises instead (like Secret Santa, but with elaborately decorated gifts and a poem.)
There are a lot of Sinterklaas songs to be sung, as well as specific sweet treats that accompany the season! We are celebrating tonight with my parents, and my sister’s family 🙂
Yes! Also, Sinterklaas only has one horse here in The Netherlands: Amerigo is his name. Love that you made an article for this tradition! 🙂
I’m Slovakian, my partner is Scottish, so our kids get a bit of both cultures.We like celebrating this day (Svätý Mikuláš in Slovakian);our girls put their boots on the windowsill and get all excited to see “he” has been, it is nice.
Hi I am from Bulgaria and have correction regarding the custom there.
We celebrate on the 6th and it is a common thing to have fish for dinner.
I love all of these traditions. My oldest daughter grew up going to Catholic school where each year they would celebrate St. Nicholas Day. The children would attend mass on this day and come back to their classrooms to find St. Nicholas had visited by leaving them a candy cane. It was always great fun. I love that your family celebrates this tradition. St. Nicholas was a fascinating person. A very dear friend of mine even wrote a book about him. The book is steeped in real history as well as fantasy. It’s a great read for young and old alike. It’s called Nikolas and the Pantheon Trials by Dallas Graham. If you have a chance, you should read it. It’s a wonderful story. We all think of St. Nicholas the man, but this story tells about St. Nicholas as a young teen. A fun new spin….and it’s going to be a trilogy. The second book should be coming out soon. 😉