The North Pole, eight flying reindeer, cookies and milk - you might know all there is to know about Santa Claus, but what do you know about Saint Nicholas? Around the world, St. Nicholas Day is quickly approaching and celebrations are already underway. St. Nicholas Day celebrates the spirit of giving, derived from Saint Nicholas of Myra, who served as a bishop of Greece in the 4th century. Saint Nicholas was a famously giving figure, caring for children in need, struggling families, and the ill. He was also known to leave surprise gifts and coins in people’s shoes throughout his lifetime - a tradition many keep up today around this time of year.
Curious about other traditions taking place in honor of St. Nicholas Day? Here are five awesome ways people around the world are celebrating St. Nicholas Day.
1. A celebratory parade.
In most places, the St. Nicholas Day celebrations begin well before December 6th, starting in mid-November. For example, the festivities kick off in the Netherlands with parades around the country, marking Saint Nicholas’s arrival from Spain. Called Sinterklaas (“Saint Nicholas” in Dutch), nearly every town and city has an annual arrival parade, usually featuring someone dressed as Sinterklaas on a horse, boat, carriage, or even helicopter. In the time between his arrival and St. Nicholas Day, Sinterklaas travels to hospitals, schools, and from home to home, leaving small gifts for well-behaved children. In exchange, children will often leave out a carrot, some hay, and a bowl of water for Sinterklaas’ horse.
2. A boot in front of the fireplace.
On the eve of St. Nicholas Day, children around the world leave a shoe or a boot in front of the fireplace or the front door, hoping to wake up to it filled with gifts from Saint Nicholas. Not unlike the Western idea of Santa Claus leaving coal for naughty children, Saint Nicholas might leave a stick for misbehaving children. There are variations of this tradition across countries, ranging from a bag of salt to a switch for parents to use as discipline. Today, most children will receive gifts from Saint Nicholas despite their record of behavior over the past year - anything from hot chocolate and mandarin oranges to personalized notes, candy, and coins to be shared with family and friends.
3. A feast on St. Nicholas’ Eve.
For those who celebrate St. Nicholas Day, the eve of the holiday is often more important than the actual day. Think of it like Christmas Day - often, families hold their gatherings and exchange presents on Christmas Eve and spend Christmas Day in church or quietly celebrating with immediate family. Likewise, St. Nicholas’ Eve is celebrated with gift-giving and a big feast shared by family. Called Sinterklaasavond (Sinterklaas evening) in the Netherlands, it has become the holiday’s main day of celebration.
What’s on the menu for a St. Nicholas’ Eve feast? A traditional table might have Bishop’s wine, breads, St. Nicholas-shaped cookies, and a special main dish reserved for the holiday. In France, that might be pork with mustard & apples. In Germany, you might enjoy Pfannkuchen, or German pancakes. Around the world, there are traditional St. Nicholas pizzas, soups, and pastries, so arrive hungry!
4. Gifts for unmarried women.
In Italy, children aren’t the only ones receiving gifts on Saint Nicholas Day - unmarried women make the list, too. Particularly in Sassari, young women are given gifts to help them find a husband. Across Italy, unmarried women might attend a special mass on St. Nicholas Day to participate in Rito delle nubili, a ritual where they turn a column seven times to help change their luck in finding a spouse.
Wondering why unmarried women receive so much attention on St. Nicholas Day? Saint Nicholas is viewed as a patron of more than just children and the needy - he also protected virgins. One story of Saint Nicholas tells how he once provided a poor man with dowries for his three daughters, ensuring they could marry well.
5. An appearance from Krampus.
Not all is merry and bright during Saint Nicholas Day - and that’s all thanks to Krampus. Around the world, variations of this menacing figure accompany Saint Nicholas to punish children who misbehave. You’re most likely to bump into Krampus in Germany, Austria, Hungary, Slovenia, and the Czech Republic. He’s usually depicted as half-man, half-goat - a frightening creature that borrows traits from demons, beasts, and the devil. Legend has it Krampus travels with Saint Nicholas, leaving coal for naughty children or - in some cases - kidnapping them in his sack. Another spine-chilling Krampus tradition: the Eve of Saint Nicholas Day is Krampusnacht, or Krampus Night, in some parts of Europe. Krampus takes to the streets, visiting the homes of misbehaving children. If that doesn’t motivate you to be good this year, we don’t know what will.
There’s still time to brush up on your Dutch and celebrate Sinterklaas, or practice your German and join in on the Krampusnacht debauchery. Celebrate the season with a little language and culture learning with friends and family - the holiday fun begins with Mango!
Sources: http://www.stnicholascenter.org/pages/st-nicholas-day/, https://www.timeanddate.com/holidays/common/saint-nicholas, http://news.nationalgeographic.com/news/2013/12/131217-krampus-christmas-santa-devil/, https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Saint_Nicholas_Day, http://www.stnicholascenter.org/pages/home/