Saint Nicholas Day
The tradition of Saint Nicholas Day, usually on 6 December ( O.S. 19 December in most Orthodox countries), is a festival for children in many countries in Europe related to surviving legends of the saint, and particularly his reputation as a bringer of gifts. The American Santa Claus, as well as the Anglo-Canadian and British Father Christmas, derive from these legends. 'Santa Claus' is itself derived in part from the Dutch Sinterklaas.
St. Nicolas comes primarily in Alsace, Lorraine and Nord-Pas-de-Calais (French Flanders). St. Nicolas is patron of Lorraine. A little donkey carries baskets filled with children's gifts, biscuits (U.S.: 'cookies') and sweets. The whole family gets ready for the saint's arrival on 6 December, with grandparents telling stories of the saint. The most popular one is of three children who wandered away and got lost. Cold and hungry, a wicked butcher lured them into his shop where he attacked and salted them away in a large tub. Through the intervention of St. Nicolas the boys were restored to their families. This story led to Nicolas being recognized as the protector of children. In France statues and paintings often portray this event, showing the saint with children in a barrel. The evil butcher became Pere Fouettard, who has followed St. Nicolas in shame ever since. This story is also a popular French children's song. Meanwhile bakeries and home kitchens are a hive of activity as spiced gingerbread biscuits (U.S.: 'cookies') and mannala (a brioche shaped like the good saint) are baked. At school children learn St. Nicolas songs and poems and draw and paint St. Nicolas pictures and crafts. Saint Nicolas visits nursery schools, giving children chocolates and sometimes even a little present. Though Pere Fouettard carries switches to threaten the children, what they really fear is that he may advise Saint Nicolas to pass them by on his gift-giving rounds.
In Malta, St. Nicholas (mt: San Nikola, less commonly San Niklaw) is the patron saint of the town of Siggiewi where his feast is celebrated on the last Sunday in June. The parish church, dedicated to the saint, was built between 1676 and 1693. It was designed by the Maltese architect, Lorenzo Gafa, with the portico and naves being added by Nicola Zammit in the latter half of the 19th century. The ruins of a former parish church are still visible and have recently undergone restoration.
The saint who inspired the legend of Santa Claus (Nao? Nioclás) is believed to have been buried in Newtown Jerpoint in Kilkenny some 800 years ago. Originally buried in Myra in modern day Turkey, his body was moved from there to Italy in 1169, but said to have been taken afterwards to Ireland by Nicholas de Frainet, a distant relative. The church of Saint Nicholas was built by his family there and dedicated to the memory of the saint. A slab grave on the ground of this church claims to hold his remains. There is a yearly Mass in relation to the memory of Saint Nicholas, but otherwise the celebration is quite low key.
St. Nicholas (San Nicola) is the patron of the city of Bari, where it is believed he is buried. Its deeply felt celebration is called the Festa di San Nicola, held on the 7–9 of May. In particular on 8 May the relics of the saint are carried on a boat on the sea in front of the city with many boats following (Festa a mare). On 6 December there is a ritual called the Rito delle nubili. The same tradition is currently observed in Sassari, where during the day of Saint Nicholas, patron of the city, gifts are given to young brides who need help before getting married.
In the provinces of Trieste, Belluno and Trentino St. Nicholas (San Nicolo) is celebrated with gifts given to children on the morning of 6 December and with a fair called Fiera di San Nicolo during the first weeks of December. Depending on the cultural background, in some families this celebration is more important than Christmas. Trieste is a city on the sea, being one of the main ports of the Austro-Hungarian Empire and is influenced mainly by Italian, Slovenian and German cultures, but also Greek and Serbian.
St. Nicholas ('San Nicolás') is the patron of the Valladolid, one of the two medieval universities of Spain.
In one city (Guimaraes) in Portugal, St. Nicholas (Sao Nicolau) has been celebrated since the Middle Ages as the patron saint of high-school students, in the so-called Nicolinas, a group of festivities that occur from 29 November to 7 December each year. In the rest of Portugal this is not celebrated.
Belgium, the Netherlands and the Lower Rhineland (Germany)
In the Netherlands and Belgium, Saint Nicholas' Eve (5 December) is the primary occasion for gift-giving, when his reputed birthday is celebrated.
In the days leading up to 5 December (starting when Saint Nicholas has arrived by steamboat around mid-November), young children put their shoes in front of the chimneys and sing Sinterklaas songs. Often they put a carrot or some hay in the shoes, as a gift to St. Nicholas' horse. (In recent years the horse has been named Amerigo in The Netherlands and Slechtweervandaag in Flanders.) The next morning they will find a small present in their shoes, ranging from sweets to marbles or some other small toy. On the evening of 5 December, Sinterklaas brings presents to every child who has behaved well in the past year (in practice, just as with Santa Claus, all children receive gifts without distinction). This is often done by placing a bag filled with presents outside the house or living room, after which a neighbour or parent bangs the door or window, pretending to be Sinterklaas' assistant. Another option is to hire or ask someone to dress up as Sinterklaas and deliver the presents personally. Sinterklaas wears a bishop's robes including a red cape and mitre and is assisted by many mischievous helpers with black faces and colourful Moorish dress, dating back two centuries. These helpers are called 'Zwarte Pieten' ('Black Petes') or 'Pere Fouettard' in the French-speaking part of Belgium.
The myth is that, if a child had been naughty, the Zwarte Pieten put all the naughty children in sacks, and Sinterklaas took them to Spain (it is believed that Sinterklaas comes from Spain, where he returns after 5 December). Therefore, many Sinterklaas songs still allude to a watching Zwarte Piet and a judging Sinterklaas.
In the past number of years, there has been a recurrent discussion about the perceived politically incorrect nature of the Moorish helper. In particular Dutch citizens with backgrounds from Suriname and the Netherlands Antilles might feel offended by the Dutch slavery history connected to this emblem and regard the Zwarte Pieten to be racist. Others state that the black skin color of Zwarte Piet originates in his profession as a chimneysweep, hence the delivery of packages though the chimney.
In recent years, Christmas (along with Santa Claus) has been pushed by shopkeepers as another gift-giving festival, with some success; although, especially for young children, Saint Nicholas' Eve is still much more important than Christmas. The rise of Father Christmas (known in Dutch as de Kerstman) is often cited as an example of globalisation and Americanisation.
On the Frisian islands (Waddeneilanden), the Sinterklaas feast has developed independently into traditions very different from the one on the mainland.
German speaking countries
In Northern Germany, Sankt Nikolaus is usually celebrated on a small scale. Many children put a boot called Nikolaus-Stiefel (Nikolaus boot) outside the front door on the night of 5 December. St. Nicholas fills the boot with gifts and sweets overnight, and at the same time checks up on the children to see if they were good, polite and helpful the last year. If they were not, they will have a tree branch (Rute) in their boots instead. Sometimes a Nikolaus impersonator also visits the children at school or in their homes and asks them if they have been good (sometimes ostensibly checking his golden book for their record), handing out presents on the basis of their behavior. This has become more lenient in recent decades, and this task is often taken over by the Weihnachtsmann (Father Christmas). In more catholic regions, Nikolaus is dressed very much like a bishop and rides on a horse, welcomed at public places by a large crowd. Typical in Germany for Saint Nicholas Day is the Stutenkerl, a pastry made of sweet leavened dough.
In Austria, Bavaria and Tyrol (Austro-Bavarian speaking regions), St. Nicholas is accompanied by Krampus, represented as a beast like creature, generally demonic in appearance.
In Swiss folklore, the Christmas gift-bringer is known as Samichlaus (like Dutch Sinterklaas a corruption of the name of St. Nicholas). The Swiss version of the scary companion of St. Nicholas corresponding to the Austrian Krampus and the German Knecht Ruprecht is known as Schmutzli. In the folklore of certain Swiss regions, the demonic characters corresponding to Austrian Krampus are themselves known as Chläuse (singular Chlaus 'Nicholas'; see also Chlausjagen). In Catholic parts of Switzerland, Saint Nicholas long retained his traditional habit of bishop's robes and mitre, while in Protestant parts, he came to be depicted in the Anglo-American 'Father Christmas'.
In highly Catholic regions, the local priest was informed by the parents about their children's behaviour and would then personally visit the homes in the traditional Christian garment and threaten to beat them with a rod. In parts of Austria, Krampusse, who local tradition says are Nikolaus's helpers (in reality, typically children of poor families), roamed the streets during the festival. They wore masks and dragged chains behind them. These Krampusläufe (Krampus runs) still exist.
In Croatia, Nikolaus (Sveti Nikola) who visits on Saint Nicholas day (Nikolinje) brings gifts to children commending them for their good behavior over the past year and exhorting them to continue in the same manner in the year to come. If they fail to do so they will receive a visit from Krampus who traditionally leaves a rod, an instrument their parents will use to discipline them.
In the Czech Republic and Slovakia, Mikuláš, in Poland Miko³aj and in Ukraine Svyatyi Mykolay is often also accompanied by an angel (andìl/anio³/anhel) who acts as a counterweight to the ominous devil or Knecht Ruprecht (èert/czart). Additionally, in Poland children find the candy and small gifts under the pillow or in their shoes the evening of 5 December (O.S. 18 December (in Ukraine)) or the morning of 6 December (O.S. 19 December).
In Hungary and Romania, children typically leave their boots on the windowsill on the evening of 5 December. By next morning Nikolaus (Szent Miklós traditionally but more commonly known as Mikulás in Hungary or Moº Nicolae (Sfântul Nicolae) in Romania) leaves candy and gifts if they have been good, or a rod (Hungarian: virgács, Romanian: nuieluºa) if they have been bad (most children end up getting small gifts, but also a small rod). In Hungary he is often accompanied by the Krampusz, the frightening helper who is out to take away the bad ones.
In Luxembourg, Kleeschen is accompanied by the Houseker a frightening helper wearing a brown monk's habit.
In Slovenia, Saint Nikolaus (Miklavž) is accompanied by an angel and a devil (parkelj) corresponding to the Austrian Krampus.
Greece, Serbia and Bulgaria
In Greece, Saint Nicholas does not carry an especial association with gift-giving, as this tradition is carried over to St. Basil of Cesarea, celebrated on New Year's Day. St. Nicholas being the protector of sailors, he is considered the patron saint of the Greek navy, military and merchant alike, and his day is marked by festivities aboard all ships and boats, at sea and in port. It is also associated with the preceding feasts of St. Barbara (4 December), St. Savvas (5 December), and the following feast of St. Anne (9 December); all these are often collectively called the 'Nikolobárbara', and are considered a succession of days that heralds the onset of truly wintry cold weather in the country. Therefore by tradition, homes should have already been laid with carpets, removed for the warm season, by St. Andrew's Day (30 November), a week ahead of the Nikolobárbara.
In Serbia, and among the Serb people living across the world, Saint Nicholas is the most widely celebrated family patron saint, celebrated as the feast day (Slava) of Nikoljdan. Since Nikoljdan always falls in the fasting period preceding Christmas, it is celebrated according to the Eastern Orthodox fasting rules ('Post'). Fasting refers in this context to the eating of a restricted diet for reasons of religion.
In the Republic of Bulgaria, Saint Nicholas is one of the most celebrated saints. Many churches and monasteries are named after him. Saint Nicholas' day is celebrated as a holiday on the 6th of December.
Saint Nicholas is celebrated by all the Christian communities in Lebanon: Catholic, Greek Orthodox, and Armenian. Many places, churches, convents, and schools are named in honor of Saint Nicholas, such as Escalier Saint-Nicolas des Arts, Saint Nicolas Garden, and Saint Nicolas Greek Orthodox Cathedral.
Saint Nicholas is the patron saint of the town of Beit Jala. This little town, which is located only two kilometers to the west of Bethlehem, boasts being the place where St. Nicholas spent four years of his life during his pilgrimage to the Holy Land. Every year on the 19th of December according to the Gregorian Calendar—that is the 6th of December according to the Julian Calendar—a solemn Divine Liturgy is held in the Orthodox Church of St. Nicholas, and is usually followed by parades, exhibitions, and many activities. Palestinian Christians of all sects, denominations and churches come to Beit Jala and participate in prayers and celebrations.
United States and Canada
While feasts of Saint Nicholas are not observed nationally, cities with strong German influences like Milwaukee, Cincinnati and St. Louis celebrate St. Nick's Day on a scale similar to the German custom. As in other countries, many people in the United states celebrate a separate St Nicholas Day by putting their shoes outside their bedroom doors on the evening of 5 December. St Nicholas then comes during the night. On the morning of 6 December, those people will find their shoes filled with gifts and sugary treats. Widespread adoption of the tradition has spread among the German, Polish, Belgian and Dutch communities throughout the United States.
On 24 December, Christmas Eve, each child puts one empty stocking/sock on their fireplace. The following morning of 25 December, the children awake to find that St. Nick has filled their stockings with candy and small presents (if the children have been good) or coal (if not). Gifts often include chocolate gold coins to represent the gold St. Nick gave to the poor and small trinkets. They also awake to find presents under the tree, wrapped in Christmas-themed paper. This is a very traditional part of Christmas.
Santa Claus, also known as Saint Nicholas, Father Christmas and simply 'Santa', is a figure with legendary, mythical, historical and folkloric origins who, in many western cultures, is said to bring gifts to the homes of the good children during the late evening and overnight hours of Christmas Eve, December 24. The modern figure was derived from the Dutch figure of Sinterklaas,which, in turn, may have part of its basis in hagiographical tales concerning the historical figure of gift giver Saint Nicholas. A nearly identical story is attributed by Greek and Byzantine folklore to Basil of Caesarea. Basil's feast day on January 1 is considered the time of exchanging gifts in Greece.
Santa Claus is generally depicted as a portly, joyous, white-bearded man - sometimes with spectacles - wearing a red coat with white collar and cuffs, white-cuffed red trousers, and black leather belt and boots (images of him rarely have a beard with no moustache). This image became popular in the United States and Canada in the 19th century due to the significant influence of Clement Clarke Moore's 1823 poem 'A Visit From St. Nicholas' and of caricaturist and political cartoonist Thomas Nast. This image has been maintained and reinforced through song, radio, television, children's books and films.
According to a tradition which can be traced to the 1820s, Santa Claus lives at the North Pole, with a large number of magical elves, and nine (originally eight) flying reindeer. Since the 20th century, in an idea popularized by the 1934 song 'Santa Claus Is Coming to Town', Santa Claus has been believed to make a list of children throughout the world, categorizing them according to their behavior ('naughty' or 'nice') and to deliver presents, including toys, and candy to all of the well-behaved children in the world, and sometimes coal to the naughty children, on the single night of Christmas Eve. He accomplishes this feat with the aid of the elves who make the toys in the workshop and the reindeer who pull his sleigh.
Saint Nicholas of Myra is the primary inspiration for the Christian figure of Sinterklaas. He was a 4th century Greek Christian bishop of Myra (now Demre) in Lycia, a province of the Byzantine Anatolia, now in Turkey. Nicholas was famous for his generous gifts to the poor, in particular presenting the three impoverished daughters of a pious Christian with dowries so that they would not have to become prostitutes. He was very religious from an early age and devoted his life entirely to Christianity. In continental Europe (more precisely the Netherlands, Belgium, Austria and Germany) he is usually portrayed as a bearded bishop in canonical robes. In 1087, the Italian city of Bari, wanting to enter the profitable pilgrimage industry of the times, mounted an expedition to locate the tomb of the Christian Saint and procure his remains. The reliquary of St. Nicholas was desecrated by Italian sailors and the spoils, including his relics, taken to Bariwhere they are kept to this day. A basilica was constructed the same year to store the loot and the area became a pilgrimage site for the devout, thus justifying the economic cost of the expedition. Saint Nicholas was later claimed as a patron saint of many diverse groups, from archers, sailors, and children to pawnbrokers. He is also the patron saint of both Amsterdam and Moscow.