For nearly a decade, on the Saturday before December 6th, the Feast Day St. Nicholas, I dressed as the bishop St. Nicholas. I told his story and handed out candy to children. It gave parents a chance to introduce their children to the original gift giver and his story of faith and service. It shared the true inspiration for Santa Claus who, in recent times, has become diluted to be known as a: home invading, secularized, bearer of largess.
An actual person from history, St. Nicholas brings an example of passion for Christ and a life of generosity, service and wonders. Sometimes known as the wonder worker, he is the patron saint of children, sailors and many others.
Celebrating the Feast of St. Nicholas in the United States
Depending on the calendar, the feast day of Saint Nicholas is either Dec 6th or Dec 19th (Julian Calendar). In the United States the Feast of St. Nicholas is celebrated on December 6th. This makes the eve of the feast, December 5th a special time too.
On December 5th, many children set their shoes outside the door, in the hall or by the hearth. They hope that treats or candies will be left in the shoes overnight when St. Nicholas passes by. In some places, on the eve of the feast of St. Nicholas, children hang a stocking with their Christmas wish list. They hoping to find the list gone and candy, not coal in it the following morning. Getting treats (good) or coal (bad) is intended as a reminder, a wake up call if you will, to make sure you are well behaved during the last weeks before Christmas. In fact, in some parts of the globe, the big gift giving day is St. Nicholas Day not Christmas.
The Feast of St. Nicholas Around the World
The feast of St. Nicholas has been celebrated longer than there has been a United States. It should come as no surprise that there are different traditions in Europe and beyond.The St. Nicholas Center website has an amazing collection of traditions celebrated around the world for St. Nicholas Day.
As a quick sample of how traditions vary and resemble each other, here is a brief look at different countries and their traditions.
How Does St. Nicholas Get Around?
In some places, he arrives from heaven with an angel helper. In others, he rides on a donkey or white horse. In some parts of the world he comes in a sleigh or a horse drawn coach. Whatever mode of transport, his arrival brings to life local traditions. Many countries also introduce other interesting visitors as well.
Who Comes With Him?
Many of the figures associated with a visit from St. Nicholas are connected to the dynamic tension between good and evil. They are characters in a morality play With St. Nicholas being the good guy and others representing our wickedness or bad behavior.
Angels – Depending on where you live, Saint Nicholas arrives along with or closely following other visitors. One of them, an angel, has a different roles in different cultures. For example: they carry the book keeping records of children’s behavior in some places, while in others they help protect children from the devil who lurks about.
Villians – In many traditions there is a sinister companion who comes ahead of St. Nicholas (Krampus in Austria, Germany, and eastern Europe or the devil in Czech and Slovak traditions). Often he resembles a devil-like figure in chains which rattle. While the chains show he is under the power of the saint, he still prowls about ready to switch misbehaving children or carry them away in a sack. In France and Luxembourg, the evil butcher who lured children to their deaths is forced to follow St. Nicholas who is the protector of children.
Helpers – Certainly the angel mentioned earlier is a helper, but there are others too. Most notable is Ruprecht from Germany. While he has different names in different parts of Germany or in the Alsace region of France, he has a similar role all over. An assistant to St. Nicholas, he often has soot on him from going down chimneys to leave treats for good children. You will see him portrayed with Nicholas’ sack of presents, along with a rod for bad children.
What Does St Nicholas Do?
Many of the traditions are a short morality play for children. They encounter the examples of good and are challenged where they may be falling short of best behavior. They experience reward for the goodness and warnings for bad behavior. These two elements are present in nearly all traditions:
- Receiving treats and gifts when good. Or conversely, coal or switches when bad.
- A reminder that someone is watching your behavior and to be your best self as Christmas approaches
In some places the tradition involves testing children on prayers, religious instruction or catechism. St. Nicholas will often tell his story, encourage children to be good and listen to their desires. Sometimes he presents the gifts or treats and at other times the treats arrive in the night. The items he leaves or gives to children vary from fruits, nuts, and candy, to other small gifts items.
Learn More About St. Nicholas
There is more to learn about the life and legends associated with St. Nicholas. Our Saint Directory has a detailed article on St. Nicholas including history, images, and prayers. You can also find traditional stories and legends about the life of St. Nicholas at the St Nicholas Center website.
Items Related to St. Nicholas
- Making Candy Canes Shaped Like a Bishop Staff
- A St Nicholas Prayer for Children
- Prayer of St. Nicholas
- St. Nicholas Day Blessing of Candy Canes