Saint Nicholas was known for doing much of his charitable work in secret.
In many countries in Europe, Saint Nicholas’s Day, the 6th of December, is seen as an early Christmas celebration and indeed the kickoff to the Christmas season, much like Thanksgiving Day in the United States. On the night before his feast day, children will lay out their shoes by the front door, next to the fireplace or under their beds and the next morning they will be filled with candies, cookies and small toys after a supposed visit from Saint Nicholas much in line with the tradition of Santa Clause in America and other countries. In some countries, it is a tradition for children to leave carrots or hay in their shoes as a gift for St. Nicholas’s donkey. This practice is reminiscent of the custom of leaving hay for the camels of the Three Kings on the feast of the Epiphany in Spain and some Latin American countries. Keeping in line with the message of charity and community that Saint Nicholas preached throughout his life, the gifts that children receive are meant to be shared with friends and family rather than horded.
In order to understand the various traditions surrounding this miraculous saint and his feast day, we must examine his life. Saint Nicholas lived most of his life in Myra, which is in modern day Turkey. He was born there on 15 March 270 and died on 6 December 343 a date which ultimately became his feast day. He was from an extremely wealthy family, but shunned excess and lived a life dedicated to God and serving the poor. He eventually became bishop of Myra. Nicholas was known for his charity and often times offered to pay the dowries of young women in his city so that they might marry and avoid a life of poverty, as in those days a proper dowry was necessary to enter into a suitable marriage. He was known for doing much of his charitable work in secret. He would visit the homes of the poor and drop gold coins and small gifts down the chimneys or place them directly in stockings that were hung by the fire to dry. The modern tradition of hanging Christmas stockings comes from the charitable example of Saint Nicholas. After his death, many miracles were attributed to Saint Nicholas, a phenomenon that continues to this day. In the year 1087, sailors pillaged many of the relics of Saint Nicholas and brought them to Bari, Italy where they remain to this day housed in a basilica dedicated to him. To this day, especially around his feast day, the bones of Saint Nicholas exude a sweet smelling substance popularly called manna or myrrh which possesses miraculous powers of healing and spiritual conversion.
Due to his reputation as a gift giver, many traditions have sprung up in various Christian countries regarding Saint Nicholas’s feast day and by extension Christmas. In Hungary, Slovakia and the Czech Republic Saint Nicholas himself reportedly gives gifts to good children on the eve of his feast day and on Christmas Eve it is the Baby Jesus who brings gifts. The tradition of Saint Nicholas as gift giver carried over to countries as far west and Holland where he is known as Sinter Klauss from which we get the tradition of the modern day Santa Clause that came to America via Holland with early Dutch immigrants. There also exists a somewhat scary tradition in Hungary and Austria that revolves around Krampus, the Christmas devil, who travels with Saint Nicholas and punishes naughty children by hitting them with a switch while Saint Nicholas rewards the good children with gifts. A similar tradition involving a figure named Ruprecht who has the similar role of punishing naughty children by filling their shoes with coal or sticks exists in Germany. In many former communist countries, where the celebration of Christmas and all things Christian was either frowned upon or banned outright, there was an attempt to replace Saint Nicholas with a secular character named Father Frost who gave gifts on New Year’s Eve instead of Christmas or Saint Nicholas’s Day. In fact, the celebration of New Year’s was promoted as a replacement for Christmas. Since the collapse of communism, the various traditions regarding Saint Nicholas have widely taken root again which is a powerful testimony to this saint’s message of faith, sharing and community.
During the holiday season it is easy to get caught up with shopping, decorating, cooking and all the other potentially stressful activities associated with this time of year. We should look to Saint Nicholas as an example of the true meaning of the holiday season, which is one of hope, generosity and kindness toward others. Making a donation to charity or helping (discretely) a family in need are wonderful ways of honoring Saint Nicholas and following his example. You may also wish to give small gifts to friends and family or to recite the following prayer on his feast day (Dec. 6th):
O good St. Nicholas,
you who are the joy of the children,
put in my heart the spirit of childhood,
which the gospel speaks, and teach me to seed happiness around me.
You, whose feast prepares us for Christmas,
open my faith to the mystery of God made man.
You good bishop and shepherd,
help me live a life of holiness and charity
and inspire me to do good in the world.
O good Saint Nicholas, patron of children, sailors and the helpless,
watch over me as well as over those who humble themselves before you.
Bring us all in reverence to the Holy Child of Bethlehem,
where true joy and peace are found.
Thank you for taking the time to visit my blog and I wish you much happiness, peace and joy on the Feast of St. Nicholas, throughout the holiday season and always!