TUESDAY, DECEMBER 6: If Christmas over-commercialization has you feeling disheartened, don’t worry: Today’s St. Nicholas Day is an early celebration of giving, charity and true Christmas spirit! Around the world, Eastern and Western Christians—and many non-Christians—remember St. Nicholas of Myra, an early saint whose works are reflected in many of today’s Christmas season traditions. So before you hang your stocking by the chimney, munch on a candy cane or drop coins into a Salvation Army bucket, learn about the saint whose life inspired it all!
Born in modern-day Turkey in the 4th century, St. Nicholas became popular for his good deeds—which traditional accounts say involved miracles! Above all, “Nikolaos the Wonderworker” was known for his secret gift-giving, as he never desired credit for his works and wanted those he helped to thank God instead. (Wikipedia has details.) Whether providing dowries, food, life-saving skills or something else, St. Nick always gave to those with the most need. Today, he is the patron saint of many countries and several groups, including children and sailors. In places where St. Nicholas Day is widely celebrated, he takes the place of Santa Claus, often “giving” good children small treats and coins in their shoes on St. Nicholas Day eve.
Just which Christmas season traditions can be tied to St. Nicholas? A lot of them, actually! One story of St. Nicholas tells of his rescuing poor maidens from slavery by tossing dowry coins into their stockings hung by the fire. A well known symbol of St. Nicholas is the crozier, or bishop staff—since St. Nicholas was a bishop—and many believe the modern-day candy cane represents a candy crozier of St. Nicholas. (Find out more from St. Nicholas Center.) This saint’s secret gift-giving also evolved into the nighttime, secretive visit of Santa Claus.
If St. Nicholas Day isn’t widely celebrated where you live, make your own traditions! Have a paternal figure dress up as St. Nicholas and ask the children of a household if they have properly prepared for Christ’s birth through good actions. If baking cookies is your style, try “speculaas”—ginger cookies commonly prepared for St. Nicholas Day and cut into shapes that visualize the saint’s life works. (Get the recipe from Women for Faith and Family.)
Originally published at readthespirit.com, an online magazine covering religion and cultural diversity.