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Was Saint Nicholas a real person? Is he the model for Santa Claus and Father Christmas? Find out about the history of St. Nicholas Day and the traditions associated with this holiday (leave out those shoes!).
Saint Nicholas Day: The Feast of Sinterklaas
At the beginning of the Advent season is St. Nicholas Day (December 6—or December 19 on the Julian calendar).
St. Nicholas was a bishop who was known for his good deeds, especially for the needy and children. He often gave generously and anonymously (without anyone knowing the gifts were from him). Nicholas was officially recognized as a saint in the 800s, and in the 1200s, Catholics in France began celebrating Bishop Nicholas Day on December 6.
Many European countries celebrate the Feast of Sinterklaas—also known as St. Nicholas—starting on the 5th of December, the eve of the day, by sharing candies, chocolate letters, small gifts, and riddles. Children put out their shoes with carrots and hay for the saint’s horse the evening prior, hoping St. Nicholas would exchange them for small gifts. (Sound familiar?)
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. It was the Dutch pronunciation of his name—Sinterklaas—as well as Dutch traditions that made their way to America. These led the way to the name Santa Claus and the gift-giving tradition.
For many European countries, this simple gift-giving day in early Advent helps preserve a Christmas Day focus on the meaning of Christmas itself.
When Is St. Nicholas Day This Year?
St. Nicholas Day
Wednesday, December 6
Friday, December 6
Saturday, December 6
Sunday, December 6
Saint Nicholas Traditions
You may find it interesting that some of our Santa Claus traditions indeed came from St. Nicholas Day. If your children are confused about Santa Claus, tell them the story of St. Nicholas, who was a bonafide saint who bestowed gifts onto others to demonstrate his faith.
Leaving out Shoes
The most common way to celebrate St. Nicholas Day is to leave shoes out for St. Nicholas to place small gifts in. Socks are fine, too.
Traditionally, the gifts are simply small candies or coins—little items that bring a lot of joy to children. If you wish to celebrate this tradition, leave shoes or wooden clogs by the door on the evening of December 5.
In the morning, the shoes will be filled with small delights (candy canes, spare change, foreign coins).
The Candy Cane
The candy cane also symbolizes St. Nicholas, representing his staff. Add small candy canes to the shoes, or decorate your tree! We won’t tell if you eat a few candies on the way!
A traditional treat on St. Nicholas Day is Spicy Sinterklaas Cookies, also known as Speculaas. These are spicy ginger cookies, often baked in a mold shaped like St. Nicholas!
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 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 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 needy people 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.
Is St. Nicholas Really Santa Claus?
A few legends of St. Nicholas 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 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 of 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 of children and 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 worldwide.