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?
Who was Saint Nicholas?
St. Nicholas' Day is derived from Saint Nicholas of Myra, who served as a bishop in the fourth century. Saint Nicholas was a famously giving figure, caring for children in need, struggling families, and the ill. He was also known to leave coins in people’s shoes and give surprise gifts throughout his lifetime — a tradition many keep up today around this time of year.
When is St. Nicholas’ day?
St. Nicholas’ Day falls either on December 5, 6, or 19, depending where you live, but in most places, the St. Nicholas' Day celebrations begin as early as mid-November. Curious about the traditions taking place in honor of this age-old holiday? Here are five ways people around the world celebrate St. Nicholas’ Day.
St. Nicholas’ Day parades
In the Netherlands, the festivities kick off with parades around the country, marking Saint Nicholas’ 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.
A boot in front of the fireplace
On the eve of St. Nicholas' Day, children 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 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.
St. Nicholas’ Feast Day
In some countries, the eve of the holiday is 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.
What’s on the menu? 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 and 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!
Gifts for unmarried women
In Italy, children aren’t the only ones receiving gifts on Saint Nicholas' Day — unmarried women make the list, too. 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.
A visit from Krampus, St. Nicholas’ cloven-footed companion
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!
Know of any other interesting St. Nicholas' Day traditions? Share with us in the comments!
“Sinterklaas” by Pablo is licensed under CC BY-SA 2.0