St. Nicholas Day
Yes, Virginia, there was a Saint Nicholas. Many of you are aware that the popular figure of Santa Claus is based on a real person: he was Nicholas, bishop of Myra, and he lived during the fourth century in what is now Turkey. He is the patron saint of cities across Europe and Russia, and he is also the patron saint of children, sailors, and merchants, among others. Renowned for his kindness, charity, and generosity, he personified the spirit of Christmas. Stories and legends are still told of his compassion, particularly regarding children, and his feast day, December 6, has traditionally been a day of gift-giving in many European countries. The website www.stnicholascenter.org is a wealth of information and resources about St. Nicholas and how he is remembered today.
WHAT IT IS
My family and I had the pleasure of living in a country that celebrated the feast day of this saint. On December 5, Nicholas Eve, my children cleaned their shoes and set them by the front door. On the morning of December 6, they were delighted to find their shoes filled with oranges, nuts, small candies, and Nikolaus äpfel (apples which had silhouettes of candles or snowmen faded onto them).
The kind saint also paid a visit to my boys’ German kindergarten. He asked the children how they had behaved during the year and gave each child a burlap bag filled with the typical fruit, nut, and small candy treats. (St. Nicholas is a health-conscious kind of guy.)
German families often get a personal visit from St. Nicholas, as well. Families will gather in preparation and wait for his knock on the door. Wearing a bishop’s miter (tall pointed hat), long robes, and carrying a crozier (staff) and his golden book, he makes an impressive entrance. St.Nicholas then talks to those present, commending them on their good behavior and reminding them of what they need “to work on.” Magically, he knows just how each child (and adult!) has been “naughty and nice.” He distributes gifts and leaves the families to reflect on his words.
Nikolaustag is widely anticipated by children in Germany, and my boys learned to sing the popular song, Lasst uns froh und munter sein, which includes the merry chorus:
Lustig, lustig, tralalalala/Bald ist Nikolausabend da/Bald ist Nikolausabend da
This translates loosely to:
Cheerful, cheerful, tralalalala/Nicholas Eve is almost here/Nicholas Eve is almost here
Nikolaustag is a charming tradition, centered upon the giving and receiving of simple gifts and upon the reflection of our own deeds.
BRING IT HOME
- It is easy enough for children to wipe the mud off of some shoes and set them by the front door. It is also easy enough for parents to fill those shoes with assorted fruit and candy while their children are in bed.
- The spirit of the feast day would be lost, however, if these gifts are not shared and if there is no reflection on behavior. While it would be rare, indeed, for the good bishop to make a personal visit to our homes here in the U.S.A., he could leave a personal letter to each child or family member. These notes may have more impact if they are read by a parent at the dinner on St. Nicholas Day.
- Help children turn their own chocolate Santa into St. Nicholas. I used a Lindt version of Santa, which is fashioned like Fr. Christmas and already has the long red robes. I used the patterns for the miter found on the St. Nicholas Center website—they have patterns for practically every size chocolate Santa. I happened to find a red foil wine bag in with my stash of gift bags, and that was the perfect material for the miter! Red foil wrapping paper would also work nicely, and red construction paper would do in a pinch.
How do you celebrate? Please share your memories and traditions of St. Nicholas Day with us!