St. Nicholas Day 2018

St. Nicholas Day Traditions, History, and More

January 29, 2019


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Was Saint Nicholas a real person? Actually, he was! Find out about the history of St. Nicholas (and St. Nicholas Day) as well as his ties to Santa Claus!

Saint Nicholas Day: The Feast of Sinterklaas

Many countries in Europe celebrate the Feast of Sinterklaas—also known as St. Nicholas—on the eve of December 6. After dinner, families hunt for their presents, following clues in funny, anonymous poems. In Belgium and the Netherlands, a fellow dressed as St. Nicholas would arrive by ship on December 6 and ride a white horse (or a donkey) through the towns, handing out gifts. They also eat candies and cookies, especially spicy crispy ginger-cookie figures formed in a traditional wooden mold.

Get our delicious recipe for Spicy Sinterklaas Cakes, also known as Speculaas.


Other traditions equate St. Nicholas with Santa Claus, which means that St. Nicholas comes on the night of December 24, leaving presents for children to open on December 25. What day does Christmas fall on this year?

St. Nicholas Day Dates

Year St. Nicholas Day
2018 Thursday, December 6
2019 Friday, December 6
2020 Sunday, December 6

St. Nicholas History: Who Was the Real St. Nicholas?

In the 3rd century, in the village of Patara in Turkey (part of Greece in those days), a wealthy couple gave birth to a boy they named Nicholas. Tragically, while Nicholas was young, an epidemic took the lives of both of his parents.

Having been raised as a Christian, he dedicated his life to service, sold all of his belongings, and used his inheritance to help the poor and infirm. Eventually, Nicholas became a bishop, and his reputation for helping children, sailors, and other people in need spread far and wide. For this, the Roman emperor Diocletian persecuted and imprisoned him (and other religious men)—but only until the Romans realized that they had so filled their prisons with clergy that they had no place to put the thieves and murderers. So the Romans let the religious men go free.

Upon his release, Nicholas continued his charity work until he died on December 6, A.D. 343. It was said that a liquid that formed in his grave had healing powers. This and other legends about Nicholas fostered devotion to him and inspired traditions still practiced today.

Photo Credit: St. Nicholas gives gifts to children.

Is St. Nicholas Really Santa Claus?

There are a few legends of St. Nicholas which relate to the story of Santa Claus—one about gift-giving and the other about children.

In one tale, a poor man had three daughters and no dowry for any of them, thus eliminating their chance at marriage and risking their being sold into slavery instead. Mysteriously, as each girl came of marriageable age, a bag of gold (or, in some versions, a ball of gold or an orange) was lobbed through a window and landed in a sock or shoe near the hearth. The unknown gift-giver was presumed to have been Nicholas, and the situation inspired the placement by the fireplace of stockings or shoes, into which gifts were placed.

Another legend dates from long after Nicholas’s passing. In his home village, during a celebration on the anniversary of Nicholas’s death, a young boy was kidnapped to become a slave to a neighboring region’s emir. The family grieved for a year, and on the anniversary of the boy’s disappearance, they refused to leave their home. Good thing: As the story goes, Nicholas appeared, spirited the boy away from his captors, and deposited him in his house—with the gold cup from which he was serving the emir still in his hand. This once again established Nicholas as a patron and protector of children.

Nicholas was celebrated as a saint within a century of his death and today is venerated as the patron not only of children but also of sailors, captives, travelers, marriageable maidens, laborers—even thieves and murderers. He is the patron of many cities and regions, and thousands of churches are named for him around the world.

Learn More

Read more about the origins of popular Christmas traditions.

See our favorite Christmas Dinner recipes!

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St Nicholas

In Slovakia St. Nicholas arrives with an angel and a devil (to warn misbehaving kids) and presents children with sweets (during organized St Nicholas celebrations kid has to recite a little poem or sing). On the Eve of St Nicholas' day children also clean their boots and put one boot in the window of their bedroom for St Nicholas to leave a gift inside, which is candy and maybe some fruit. Traditional candy is chocolate St Nicholas.
(Christmas gifts are presented by baby Jesus in Slovakia on December 24th)

St Nicholas and money...

Santa Claus on a piece of legitimate currency? Once upon a time... There was, in fact, a legitimate $3 bill with Santa Claus featured on it. Back when individual banks or States issued their own currency, during the 1850's or earlier. Some of the banks who issued the bill were: Howard Banking Company of Boston, the Central Bank of Troy, the Pittsfield Bank, White Mountain Bank, St. Nicholas Bank of Manhattan, and the Central Bank of NYC in 1852. And it was legal tender! I remember reading about this after the $2.00 bill came out.

The Christmas Pickle

The pickle as a Christmas ornament is also associated with Saint Nicholas. I've seen at least a couple different versions of the story behind the Christmas pickle, though they follow the same basic line. In one a couple of Spanish school boys are traveling home from their boarding school for Christmas and stop for the night at an inn. The inn keeper, an evil man, takes the boys possessions then kills them and stuffs them in a pickle barrel. St. Nicholas arrives that night and becomes aware of what happened to the boys. Going to the barrel he taps it with his staff and the boys are restored to life and thank him before continuing on their way. In the other version it's three school boys, no mention of where their from or even that their from a boarding school Only that their traveling home for Christmas and stop at an inn. The inn keeper and his wife are evil people who kill the boys in their sleep and chop their bodies up before stuffing them in pickle barrels. St. Nicholas arrives at the inn and goes to the basement where the barrels are stored. Invoking the name of Christ he commands the boys to rise and be whole again, which they promptly do and are able to be reunited with their families. Both versions of the story are supposed to be an example of a miracle he supposedly preformed though scholars point to such stories as appearing centuries after his death.

The three gold balls that

The three gold balls that served as the dowry for the poor man's daughters are referenced in the universal symbol for pawnbrokers, for whom Nicholas also serves as patron saint.

St. Nicholas Day

In the Netherlands and Belgium St. Nicholas arrives via boat in November and kids put their shoe near the heater (used to be the fire) often with a carrot for his white dappled horse and sing Sinterklaas songs. Sinterklaas Eve, so December 5th, is gift giving time.

St. Nicholas' horse

The Editors's picture

Thanks for sharing! We love the tradition of carrot for his horse. Our tradition of carrots for reindeer are so reminiscent of this! The idea of having gift giving early in Advent and separating it from the focus on the meaning of Christmas is also lovely.

Thanks for sharing this post.

Thanks for sharing this post.

Saint nick

Thank you for the story of Saint Nick. I work for sisters at a convent. I told them your side of the story. They loved hearing it. They said your are close and I laughed. Thanks again and have a good holiday!


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