SUNSET TUESDAY, DECEMBER 5 and WEDNESDAY, DECEMBER 6: Whether he’s known as Sinterklaas, San Nicola or St. Nicholas in your part of the world, keep watch for the white-bearded man in the red suit, as Christians around the globe celebrate Saint Nicholas Day. In European countries, today’s festival means heaps of sweets, small toys and exciting surprises left by the famed fourth-century saint as he makes his rounds. By receiving gifts—or coal—on St. Nicholas Day, advocates of this observance say, then children can focus on the birth of Jesus on Christmas Day.
ADVENT FOR WESTERN CHRISTIANS: This special season for more than a billion Western Christians began on December 3, this year. We’ve got that story for you.
NATIVITY FAST FOR EASTERN CHRISTIANS: Families who belong to Orthodox churches began their annual fast on November 15. And, we’ve got that story, too.
BEHIND THE LEGEND: LIFE OF ST. NICHOLAS
The “real” story of Santa Claus begins with Nicholas, a man born in the 3rd century in modern-day Turkey. Orphaned at a young age, Nicholas took to heart the words of Jesus and eventually sold what his wealthy parents had left to him. Nicholas gave his proceeds to the poor, and was made bishop of Myra while still a relatively young man. His reputation for compassion and generosity continued. (Learn more from St. Nicholas Center.)
With the reign of Roman Emperor Diocletian, Christians—included Bishop Nicholas—were imprisoned and exiled. Following his release, Nicholas’s passion for helping others persisted. Stories of his deeds rapidly spun into legends, and many of those legends are still told on St. Nicholas Day.
Did you know? It is popular custom for families to host a St. Nicholas Day feast on the eve of this saint’s holiday, on December 5.
In 343 CE, Nicholas died in Myra on December 6, and was buried beneath his cathedral church. A relic known as manna formed in his grave, and the sweet-smelling liquid was rumored to have healing powers. This manna posthumously increased the popularity of the saint, and the anniversary of his death became a feast day in the Christian Church.
AROUND THE WORLD:
FRENCH MANNALA TO THE FIERA DI SAN NICOLA
In stark contrast to the secular figure of Santa Claus, St. Nicholas bears religious connotations in many of the countries that grandly celebrate his feast day. In Germany and Poland, boys dress as bishops and beg for alms for the poor; in the Netherlands and Belgium, it’s legend that St. Nicholas arrives by steamship and rides a white horse. French children often hear the tales of St. Nicholas from grandparents and elders, while gingerbread cookies and mannala (a brioche shaped like the bishop) are prepared in kitchens and bakeries. In Italy, the Fiera di San Nicola (St. Nicholas Fair) is celebrated in early December.
ACTIVITIES, RESOURCES & SPECULAAS GINGER COOKIES
Children young and old can get into the spirit of St. Nicholas with help from the St. Nicholas Center, a nonprofit dedicated to promoting his life. Among the highlights you might enjoy:
- Free printables for a stand-up St. Nicholas (best suited for a thick cardstock)
- Ideas for a St. Nicholas table, including napkins folded into the shape of bishop hats and a St. Nicholas Advent wreath
- Carved-apple miters, for St. Nicholas Day feasting
Across the site, visitors can find everything from printable candy bar wrappers and paper bag puppets to recipes for St. Nicholas cookies and chocolate initial cookies. Men dressing up as St. Nicholas can join the St. Nicholas Directory, and churches can find a range of inspirational study guides, too.
In addition, Sycamore Stirrings suggests ideas for St. Nicholas spoon puppets.
‘ZWARTE PIET‘ CONTROVERSY
St. Nicholas has many different companions, according to traditions that evolved across Europe. The St. Nicholas Center offers an overview of the entire array, which includes a white horse, a donkey, angels and then some companions from the dark side of mythology. Among them is Krampus, a demonic figure associated with St. Nicholas in some European cultures. Krampus was largely unknown outside of Europe until the last decade when versions of the demon began showing up in a handful of American TV shows and even a 2015 feature film.
The most controversial figure from the dark side of the St. Nicholas legend is Zwarte Piet (Black Peter), who has been popular in the Netherlands and also Belgium and Luxembourg. Historians debate whether this figure, often described as the saint’s playful black servant, was part of popular traditions before the mid 19th Century. But, all agree that a hugely popular 1850 children’s book crystalized the figure as part of St. Nicholas Day in the Low Countries.
The St. Nicholas Center has a lengthy, detailed history of this controversial figure, including lots of links to read more about this troubling tradition. Dutch communities are gradually coming to terms with this figure, who many observers around the world now consider a racist stereotype. Some traditional Dutch towns continue to feature Piet in the original black-face characterization. Other cities, businesses and organizations are changing to more acceptable forms of Piet: some as rainbow-hued helpers; some as a servant whose face is dark from chimney soot.
The Nicholas Center’s recommended links include a November, 2017, column about this issue that begins: The Netherlands may not have any Confederate statues to pull down, but the country has its own racially charged issues with its past and its cultural institutions – most notably these days the controversy surrounding Zwarte Piet.