Celebrating St Nicholas Day

6th December is St Nicholas Day.

This is not really noted in the UK, but it is commemorated every year in Germany, where I grew up, in a really nice way.

On the night of the 5th to 6th December, kids put one boot outside their bedrooms (yes, I did; well, up to the age of around 12). Legend has it that during the night, St Nicholas fills it with nuts and tangerines, apples and chocolates and a couple of small presents. So, on the morning of the 6th, children find a small treasure when they wake up. :-) (Note: choose a non-smelly boot for better effect!)

But who was St Nicholas? And why does he go around German houses during the night before his name day, dishing out goodies?
Russian Icon of St Nicholas, c. 1500, ( (c) National Museum, Stockholm)
The original Nicholas was Greek bishop of Myra, in Lycia, Asia Minor, around 300 AD. Very little is known about the actual person – even accounts of his parents vary – although it appears he was very religious from an early age onwards. But there are plenty of legends.

He was said to have been very helpful and caring, often saving people from starvation. The number three seems to feature in various stories surrounding him. He is said to have resurrected three children killed by a butcher before he could turn them into pies; then he was rumoured to have saved three sailors during a fierce storm, guiding their ship to a safe haven.

Another (and perhaps the one that many will recognise) was about a poor man who had three daughters he was unable to provide with a dowry. The saint is said to have thrown three purses through a window and the chimney into their house (he was clearly afraid of being turned away!). Now, who does that remind you of? Yup! Good old (well, new-ish) Santa Claus!

Gentile da Fabiano's The dowry for the three virgins ((c) Pinoteca Vaticana)



St Nicholas died on 6th December (343?). He is one of only a few saints whose bones weren't scattered around Christendom. In fact, a number of his bones were transferred during turbulent times from Myra to Bari in Italy, earning him the attribution of Nicholas of Bari. The rest of his bones was collected shortly after. Apparently, Turkey has demanded the bones back. I wouldn't hold my breath.

St Nicholas is still revered by several Christian groups – Catholics, Anglican, Orthodox – in different ways, all across Europe. He is patron saint of aforementioned sailors, as well as bakers and merchants. Oh, and intriguingly of brewers and distillers. Prost!

The celebrations on the night to 6th December may stem from medieval monasteries, where novices dressed up as boy bishops and dished out alms to the community. Dressing up in a monastery sounds dodgy to modern ears, but I'm sure it was all very innocent...

One intriguing bit of information I discovered was that thanks to Martin Luther and his reformation St Nicholas was replaced by the Christkind, the Christ Child, as a giver of presents, in Germany. This was due to the reformation not recognising the sanctity of saints. I grew up thinking the Christkind left my pressies under our Christmas tree on the evening of 24th December (though you pretty quickly realise who's helping him choose them!). Not sure what it's like in the present day, though, with all the Santa media hype.

St Nicholas Day traditions live on in central and eastern Europe, but the emergence of modern-day Santa arriving through a chimney, leaving pressies for kids on the morning of 25th December, Christmas Day for those who haven't heard yet, has taken over.

In Britain, he has pushed Father Christmas, originally a Christmas visitor, not a giver of gifts, out of the way. Guess visitors were too boring and only gifts are deemed suitable to bribe kids (and adults) to behave for one day of the year...

Now, let me see if there's something in my boot this morning! Oh, and Frohe Weihnachten! :-)

~~~~~

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17 comments:

  1. Interesting, though, that the 'visitor' aspect of Father Christmas remains in the tradition of leaving out a mince pie and a glass of something nice for Santa.

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    1. That's true. It tended to be a glass of milk and biscuits for St Nicholas. Fascinating how these traditions overlap.

      Thanks for stopping by. :-)

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  2. Fascinating post, Cathie, and yep, it's whiskey Santa wants when he comes to the UK, something to warm the cockles of his heart!

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    1. Oh, the Drunkard! ;-)

      Thank you, Shani! Nice of you to pop in.

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  3. A fascinating piece, Cathie. It's interesting to see how the glass of cheer and the mince pie have developed. Some households also leave a carrot for the reindeer!

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    1. I wonder when they entered into the fray... Good idea, carrots!

      Thanks for visiting. :-)

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  4. Very interesting piece, Cathie. Benjamin Britten wrote a cantata, "Saint Nicholas", which includes the story about the boys and the butcher, entitled "Nicholas and the pickled boys"! My father insisted that Santa was partial to VSOP brandy and preferred chocolates to mince pies!

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    1. Well, I can understand the preference of chocolates. I'm not keen on mince pies, either...

      Yes, I read about the cantata. Song is another way of sharing folklore, of course.

      Thanks for popping in.

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    1. Thank you, Carol. Appreciate you for stopping by.

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  6. Thanks for highlighting this, Cathie. Especially when reports tell us that a third of children (10 to 13) don't know that Christmas celebrates the birth of Jesus! Yes, here in Spain 6 December is a bank holiday (tomorrow Monday shops and banks are shut in lieu), though it's also Constitution Day! St Nicholas is the patron saint of the University of Valladolid and Alicante City.

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    1. Thank you, Nik. Very interesting. It used to be a bank hold in Germany until 1969 too. It's a sad sign of the times that kids don't know what Christmas is about. It has turned from a celebration to a shopping frenzy. Whilst we're not really religious in terms of going to church, I still believe in the basics, so for me it's still a special time. Plus, it's important for spending time with loved ones and remembering those that left us.

      Thanks for stopping by.

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  7. Lovely piece, Cathie. I liked the advice about not using a smelly boot too, always good advice. It is a shame the myth and excitement has been overtaken by shopping, but many still believe and enjoy. And, the best way to keep Santa jolly, is indeed to leave a little tipple to keep him warm on the hardest work day of the year... for him. He even has to find a way to deliver when there are no chimneys.

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    1. Thank you, June. I think Santa may have to be careful swerving around those chimneys after a few tipples... :-)

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  8. I never refer him as 'Santa' . Always Father Christmas to me (unless there's a word count lol ). Not sure if myth, but apparently, Saint Nick wore green but was changed to red due to Coca Cola advertising and became Santa? xx

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    1. Yes, that's right, Lizzie. It changed to red thanks to the adverts. Clever marketing ploy...

      I still find it tricky saying Santa as for me Santa still doesn't bring the pressies... He fills boots on St Nicholas eve. ;-)

      Thanks for dropping in.

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  9. More than thirty years ago my girls had the chance to have Sinterklaas visit them when we lived in Holland. It was very interesting there that the Dutch tradition was that on the 5th Dec Sinterklaas sailed up from Spain to visit Dutch children. The gifts given, by the families that I knew, were the toys and on Christmas day it was more for the adults to exchange their gifts- kids getting something very small at the table. As you say Steph, what goes on now I don't know either.

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