“Chubby and plump, a right jolly old elf” is the image most of us associate with Santa Claus. But dive in to the story of St Nicholas Day, which happens every year on December 6th, and what you’ll discover is that the big man in red has a history dating back thousands of years.
Who was St Nicholas?
Contrary to popular belief, St Nick hasn’t always resided in the North Pole. In fact, the real St. Nicholas hailed from Greece, way back in the 3rd century (around 280 A.D.). He was bishop of Myra, a small Roman town that would today exist in modern Turkey, and was neither fat nor grey haired, according to facial anthropologist Caroline Wilkinson.
The original St Nick was a fierce and loyal individual who spent years in prison for his defence of church doctrines. During the Great Persecution of 303, whilst bibles were being burnt and priests were forced to renounce Christianity or face execution, Nicholas stood up for his faith and protected those around him. It is because of these acts, and of the many miracles he was associated with, that his fame lived on long after his death on December 6th, in the mid fourth century. Today, he is the protector of many different types of people, including orphans, sailors and prisoners.
How did he become associated with children and gift giving?
There are two tales associated with St. Nicholas, that have helped develop the story of St Nicholas day and the modern day image of Santa Claus.
In the first tale, a young Bishop Nicholas saves three young girls from a life of prostitution after secretly delivering three bags of gold to their father, who was in debt, to pay for their dowries.
In the second, lesser known (and also quite grim) tale, Nicholas enters an inn to discover the innkeeper has murdered three young boys and pickled their bodies in barrels. Performing a double miracle, Nicholas not only sensed that the crime has happened, but then also proceeded to resurrect the victims.
It is because of tales like this that he became the patron saint of children, and was also associated as being the bringer of gifts. Through the ages, the image of the Saint slowly changed as he took on aspects of different deities, and as such features like the white beard and the magical power of flight began to stick.
St Nicholas today
Across much of Europe and around the world, St Nicholas (Sinterklaas in Dutch, or Nikolaus in German) is remembered annually on December 6th, the day he died all those centuries ago. On the eve of December 5th (or even a few days before), children leave letters out for the Saint, alongside shoes left out by the fireplace, on the windowsill or outside their bedrooms. On St. Nicholas day, these shoes are filled with fruits, sweets and other small gifts and treats.
Traditions of the day
The story of St Nicholas day has moderate variances around the world, resulting in a mix of traditions. These are some of our favourite ways people celebrate the patron saint of children…
St. Nicholas day parades
In the Netherlands, nearly every town and city will have a Sinterklaas parade, where the big man in red arrives by boat, horse, carriage or even helicopter.
St. Nicholas Feast Day
On the eve of St. Nicholas day, many families gather together to share a feast and remember the Saint. Traditional foods eaten include Bishop’s wine, breads, St. Nicholas shaped cookies and a hero dish prepared especially for the event.
Gifts for unmarried women
In Italy, children aren’t the only ones receiving the gifts – unmarried women get a look in too. Across the country, single women may also head to mass to participate in Rito delle Nubili, a ritual that is supposed to help change their luck in finding a spouse.
A visit from Krampus
In Germany, Austria, Hungary, Slovenia and the Czech Republic, Saint Nicholas doesn’t travel alone. Krampus, a menacing figure resembling the devil, travels alongside him to punish children who are naughty, leaving coal instead of gifts and even stealing children away in his sack.
So there you have it – the story of St Nicholas day. Will you be celebrating on December 6th? Let us know your family traditions in the comments below…