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)|
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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