Saint Nicholas Day
The tradition of Saint Nicholas Day, usually on 6 December (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 British Father Christmas, derive from these legends. "Santa Claus" is itself derived in part from the Dutch Sinterklaas.
St. Nicolas comes primarily in Alsace, Nord-Pas-de-Calais (French Flanders), and in Lorraine, where he is patron. A little donkey carries baskets filled with children's gifts, biscuits 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 (also the subject of a popular French children's song) is of three children who wandered away and got lost. Cold and hungry, a wicked butcher lured them into his shop where he killed them and salted them away in a large tub. Through St. Nicolas' help the boys were revived and returned to their families, earning him a reputation as protector of children. The evil butcher followed St. Nicolas in penance ever since Père Fouettard. In France, statues and paintings often portray this event, showing the saint with children in a barrel.
Bakeries and home kitchens are a hive of activity as spiced gingerbread biscuits and mannala (a brioche shaped like the saint) are baked. In schools, children learn songs and poems and create arts and crafts about St. Nicolas, while in nursery schools, a man portraying St. Nicolas gives away chocolates and sometimes little presents. He is sometimes accompanied by an actor playing Père Fouettard, who like his German counterpart Krampus, carries switches to threaten the children who fear he will advise St. 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 Siġġiewi 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 Gafà, 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 (Naoṁ 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 Nicolò) is celebrated with gifts given to children on the morning of 6 December and with a fair called Fiera di San Nicolò 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 (Guimarães) in Portugal, St. Nicholas (São 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 "Père 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. Nicholas is often portrayed in Bavarian folklore as being accompanied by Knecht Ruprecht who inquires of the children if they have been saying their prayers, and if not, he shakes his bag of ashes at them, or beats them with a stick. 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 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 and Bosnia and Herzegovina, 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 Mikołaj and in Ukraine Svyatyi Mykolay is often also accompanied by an angel (anděl/anjel/anioł/anhel) who acts as a counterweight to the ominous devil or Knecht Ruprecht (čert/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 - preferably well-cleaned - 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 Moş Nicolae (Sfântul Nicolae) in Romania) leaves candy and gifts if they have been good, or a rod (Hungarian: virgács, Romanian: nuieluşǎ) 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.
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 Beit Jala, a town 2 kilometres (1.2 mi) west of Bethlehem where the saint spent four years of his life on pilgrimage to the Holy Land. Every 19 December (6 December in the Julian Calendar), a solemn Divine Liturgy is held in the Orthodox Church of St. Nicholas, and is usually followed by parades, exhibitions, and other activities. Palestinian Christians of all denominations come to Beit Jala and participate in the 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 or hanging an empty stocking by the fireplace 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/stockings 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. Americans who celebrate Saint Nicholas Day generally also celebrate Christmas Day (December 25) as a separate holiday. Some of the traditions and rituals of Christmas, such as leaving out a shoe or stocking to be filled, are similar to the traditions of Saint Nicholas Day.
|Wikimedia Commons has media related to: Saint Nicholas Day|
- http://www.whatsonwhen.com/sisp/index.htm?fx=event&event_id=45375 (Dutch)
- http://www.spiegel.de/international/europe/0,1518,594674,00.html (Dutch)
- Dekker, Roodenburg & Rooijakkers (redd.): Volkscultuur. Een inleiding in de Nederlandse etnologie, Uitgeverij SUN, Nijmegen, 2000: pp. 213–4 (Dutch)
- http://www.stichtingtoverbal.nl/nl/artikelen/folklore/sundrums/ (Dutch)
- Meg Kissinger, Milwaukee Journal Sentinel 1999, "St. Nick's Day can be a nice little surprise"[dead link]