To some in North America, the name St. Nicholas is nothing more than a synonym for Santa Claus, to be used in stories, poems and songs simply because more words rhyme with Nick than Claus. But in some parts of the world, and in many communities here at home, St. Nicholas has his own day, December 6th — several weeks before Christmas.
In towns founded by Dutch settlers, like Holland, Michigan, and Pella, Iowa, there are annual St. Nicholas parades. In New Ulm, Wisconsin, German and Austrian legends of St. Nicholas are told, and a bonfire is made of the sticks that St. Nicholas had brought for bad children, but found he didn’t need because they were all so good. In Mifflinberg, Pennsylvania, St. Nicholas greets visitors during a three-day Christmas market inspired by the centuries-old traditional German Christkindl Markt, or Christ Child Market.
So, who was St. Nick? You could say the modern day Santa Claus is based on St. Nicholas, but Santa is a very secularized translation, a composite of the St. Nick in ‘Twas the Night Before Christmas and of pictures created from 1931 to 1964 for Coca-Cola. The real St. Nicholas was a bishop in the fourth-century city of Myra, in what is now Turkey. According to Lives of Saints, published by John J. Crawley & Co., Inc., Nicholas had pious and virtuous parents who died while he was young, leaving him with a comfortable fortune, which he resolved to use for works of charity. He was known for his great kindness and his generous help to people in trouble.
Among the acts attributed to Nicholas is saving three young girls from prostitution by secretly providing them with dowries, in the form of a sack of gold, which he is said to have thrown through their open windows. Other Nicholas legends include Nicholas raising three murdered boys from the dead, and saving sailors caught in stormy seas. Nicholas died on December 6, 343 A.D., in Myra. By the year 450, churches in Asia Minor and Greece were being named in honor of Saint Nicholas. By 800 A.D., he was recognized as a saint, and his life was being celebrated on the anniversary of his death.
Today, a web site devoted to Nicholas (which can be found at www.stnicholascenter.org) documents 318 churches in the United States named after the saint. One can be found in almost every state, with most being in the northeast and north central parts of the country.
St. Nicholas is shared by many Christian denominations; his name graces Roman Catholic, Episcopal, Lutheran, Presbyterian, Reformed, Methodist, Greek Orthodox and Russian Orthodox churches. Many of these churches, and their surrounding communities, celebrate St. Nicholas Day around December 6th.
St. Nicholas has also been the subject of drawings and paintings throughout the ages. He is typically shown wearing a bishop’s robe and a mitre on his head, and holding a crosier, a clerical staff resembling a shepherd’s hook. Like the modern Santa, his clothing is often red, with plush white trim. Nicholas is sometimes depicted with a donkey, which carries saddlebags full of gifts, while other artists show him on a white horse.
The belief that Nicholas had an incredible love for children probably stems from the legend of the three boys. And the tradition of secretly leaving presents in the night for children grew from the story of the dowry, plus other stories of Nicholas giving gifts under cover of darkness because he didn’t want to be seen — he wanted those he helped to give thanks to God.
In Germany, Switzerland and the Netherlands, gifts have been bestowed on children in St. Nicholas’s name for hundreds of years, while the early Dutch settlers of New Amsterdam made the custom popular on this side of the Atlantic. But these nationalities aren’t alone in their historical affection for Nicholas. In Russia, he and St. Andrew are joint national patrons. Celebrations of Saint Nicholas Day in Northern Europe traditionally included gifts left in children’s shoes. Good children received treats — candies, cookies, apples and nuts — while naughty children found switches or lumps of coal. Sometimes coins were left in the shoes, reminiscent of those life-saving dowries.
In some European households, the father of the family dressed up as St. Nicholas on the eve of his feast. He came in, sometimes with his sidekick, Krampus or Black Peter, and admonished the bad while rewarding the good. Many of these traditions were brought to the New World by European immigrants and in towns or neighborhoods with strong German, Dutch or Belgian roots, children still put out their shoes or stockings to be filled with goodies.
How to Celebrate
If you’d like to add a St. Nicholas Day celebration to your family’s December calendar, here are some suggestions:
- Give treats. On the night of December 5, have children fill their shoes with pieces of carrot or bits of hay for St. Nicholas’s white horse or donkey, and then place the shoes outside bedroom doors, in windows, or on the hearth. A candy treat or simple gift should appear by morning.
- Be extra nice. Encourage children to come up with a kind “Nicholas deed” to do for someone else in secret, like shoveling an elderly neighbor’s walk, cleaning their rooms without being asked, or leaving an encouraging note for a classmate.
- Tell the story of St. Nicholas. There are dozens of books about St. Nicholas available for both adults and children.
- Have a party. In some Dutch homes, simple gifts are wrapped in deceiving ways. A pen might be found inside a hollowed-out carrot or something small could be nested inside multiple boxes and wrappings. Recipients are often given riddles or clues in order to find where their gifts are hidden.