Saint Nicholas Day | History and Traditions

Saint Nicholas Day is a Christian festival with regard to Saint Nicholas’ reputation as a bringer of gifts.

Santa Claus is popular among both children and adults alike. But what is known about the man behind the character? The original Father Christmas is St. Nicholas. He was a third-century Christian bishop, and his good deeds are still celebrated and imitated to this day.

Saint Nicholas Day

What is Saint Nicholas Day

Saint Nicholas Day is celebrated to commemorate the death anniversary of St. Nicholas. It is widely observed every December 6.

He was an early Christian bishop who was best known for his generosity and love for the poor. His legendary act of helping in secret greatly influenced the annual gift-giving traditions we still observe today during his feast day and the Christmas season.

Who is Saint Nicholas?

Saint Nicholas is known by many names like Nicholas of Myra, Nicholas of Bari, Kris Kringle, and Father Christmas. He was an early Christian bishop who is believed to be the true Santa Claus.

Saint Nicholas was venerated in the middle ages as the patron saint of many things. This includes children, high school students, and virgins. He is also known to intercede for sailors, merchants, archers, brewers, and pawnbrokers. He was known to listen to even thieves as long as they are repentant.

Life and works of Saint Nicholas

Saint Nicholas was an only child to well-off Christian parents. He was born in Patara, Lycia, modern-day Turkey. Both his parents died in an epidemic when he was a young boy and was taken under the care of his uncle, the bishop of Patara.

His uncle later ordained him into the priesthood. St. Nicholas eventually became the bishop of Myra.

He was said to have devoted his inheritance to charity, usually done in secret. He lived his entire life as a devout Christian and in service to the needy.

History of Saint Nicholas Day

Saint Nicholas is the inspiration behind the gift-giving festival every December. He was said to have given all his money to the poor.

One popular tale about St. Nicholas is about a poor father. The man could not afford dowries for his three daughters. If he fails to find husbands for the three girls, they would be forced into slavery or prostitution. To save the poor man’s daughters from such plight, St. Nicholas appeared secretly in their home. He, then, dropped three bags of gold. One bag was for each girl’s dowry. Some versions say he dropped the bags through the chimney where a bag landed on a stocking.

This story of St. Nicholas inspired the popular tradition of sharing candies and gifts, especially among children. The particular detail of giving in secret and hanging stockings to be filled with treats and toys is greatly influenced by this story.

When is Saint Nicholas Day Celebrated?

Western Christian countries celebrate Saint Nicholas Day on December 6. The celebrations usually begin on the evening of December 5. Children would leave shoes outside hoping St. Nicholas would leave presents for them during the night.

Easterners celebrate the feast day every December 19, which falls within the Advent Season in the Julian calendar.

Why Do We Celebrate Saint Nicholas Day?

Saint Nicholas Day is a Christian holiday but the celebration does not have to be exclusively religious. The heart of the occasion is to commemorate the life and death of St. Nicholas and celebrate his generous spirit.

Different Customs and Traditions on Saint Nicholas Day

All over the world, Saint Nicholas Day is celebrated differently by continent. What they have in common, though, is the imitation of the saint’s generosity and his love for the poor and helpless.

Leaving out shoes

Saint Nicholas Day is celebrated in many countries by leaving shoes or boots by the windowsill, front door, or the fireplace. In other places, they put socks or stockings, but all with the same purpose. They are to hold small gifts or candies that St. Nicholas may leave for them during the night.

Children would also leave cookies and milk for St. Nicholas, and carrots or hay for the saint’s horse.

They say that only children who have been good during the past year are entitled to these goodies. Naughty children find coals or sticks, or none at all. Although to this day, all children have received Christmas gifts so far, regardless of their behavior.

Candy Canes

St. Nicholas’ early character was depicted as a man in red ritual vestments holding a staff. Through the centuries, his image somehow transformed into a big jolly man in a red velvet suit with fur trimmings, and his staff turned into a candy cane.

Candy canes are a prominent symbol for Christmas and are used to decorate homes and cakes during this season.

Sinterklaas Cookies

Among the Dutch children, Sinterklaas cookies are a favorite snack on St. Nicholas Day. This spicy ginger treat got its shape and nickname after St. Nicholas.

Saint Nicholas Day

How to Observe Saint Nicholas Day

Different countries all over the world share closely similar customs when it comes to celebrating Saint Nicholas’ feast day.

Europe

In Northern Germany, Dutch children lay their shoes by the chimney and sing Sinterklaas songs. Adults pretend to be Saint Nicholas’ assistants and come on the evening of December 5. They leave gifts by the children’s shoes to be found on the morning of December 6.

The same tradition is practiced in other European countries with slight regional variations. 

Children in Western-Central Europe leave boots outside their homes so St. Nicholas could leave presents in them.

In France, a donkey or a man dressed as Saint Nicholas carries gifts and candies or biscuits for the children. Spiced gingerbread biscuits and mannala are traditional food eaten during this celebration.

In Italy, Saint Nicholas is known as the patron of children and virgins. They celebrate St. Nicholas Day in two separate festivals. One tradition is called Rito Delle Nubili where unmarried women who need help finding husbands attend an early morning mass on December 6 and go around a column seven times. In Sassari, gifts are given to children and unmarried women trying to find a husband.

Bari, Italy celebrates the Feast of Saint Nicholas from May 7 to 9 by carrying his relics on a boat in front of the city in a procession. He is the city’s patron saint and is believed to be buried in this place.

In Greece, festivities are held on board ships and boats as St. Nicholas is revered as the patron saint of sailors and the Greek Navy.

Orthodox Slavic countries as well as Albania and Serbia observe fasting and abstinence from meat during Saint Nicholas Day.

Bulgaria celebrates by sharing a meal that is blessed at home or church. The meal consists of fish and bread, where the bread is lifted and broken, while incense is lit at the table.

North America

St. Nicholas is better identified with the Christmas celebration than Saint Nicholas Day itself in North America. Christmas is observed with the similar gift-giving customs of St. Nicholas Day. They practice leaving out shoes and stockings to be filled with gifts and candies for children. Santa Claus is also a more popular character than the bishop saint.

In parts of North America where German influence is prominent, Saint Nicholas Day falls on December 6. The feast day is also celebrated among the Polish, Belgian, and Dutch communities. They have observances like German customs.

Middle East

Many churches, schools, and convents were built in honor of St. Nicholas across Lebanon. In other Catholic regions, the people observe common practices on Saint Nicholas Day.

How Saint Nicholas Day is Celebrated Today

Through the centuries, the customs and traditions of St. Nicholas Day and St Nicholas’ image have drastically changed.

St. Nicholas used to be the bishop in red ritual vestments holding a staff. This image later transformed into a big jolly man named Santa Claus. with a snow-white beard, in a red suit with white fur trimmings.

His nickname changed as well. The Dutch pronunciation of St. Nicholas, which is Sinterklaas, eventually became Santa Claus when it came to America.

The gift-giving traditions of Saint Nicholas Day were also adopted into the Christmas celebration. This made Santa Claus or Father Christmas the official frontman of the season.

Other counties all over the world adopted modern traditions as well.

Saint Nicholas Day

In Summary

Saint Nicholas Day is widely celebrated every December 6 to commemorate the compassionate life of St. Nicholas. His image may have changed through the years, but his generous spirit remains unchanged.

People have argued that the real St Nicholas is not to be confused with Santa Claus. What is true, though, is that we can try to be the modern-day Santa Claus. We can keep St. Nicholas’ spirit alive through executing generosity and compassion. Best if we could do so all year round and not just in December, regardless if we receive gifts or not.

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Alex Shute
EDITOR
Alex Shute, MBA
Alex is a family man and entrepreneur based in Los Angeles. His passion is to serve the global Church and bring people of diverse backgrounds together to learn & grow.