I lived in Germany when I was a younger and my family has retained some of the traditions that we learned during our stay there. When I was a kid my favorite German tradition was St. Nicholas Day because…presents! What kid isn’t in love with presents? On the night before St. Nicholas Day, I would put my shoes by the door and hope for a visit from friendly St. Nick. He would usually bring candy and small toys. It was like having a small taste of Christmas a few weeks early.
What is St. Nicholas Day?
As I started doing some research on St. Nicholas Day, I realized my previous understanding of the holiday – shoes = candy – is extremely shallow. St. Nicholas, after all, was a saint- he had to do something great to get that title, right? The story of St. Nicholas says that he was a rich child whose parents died in an epidemic. Instead of squandering his parents’ money on an iPhone 6 and pizza delivery, like I probably would have done, St. Nick gave his parent’s riches to needy people. Stories say that St. Nick protected children, cured famine, and even prevented ship wrecks. You can read these stories and more at StNicholasCenter.org.
Who celebrates St. Nicholas Day?
St. Nicholas Day is celebrated throughout Europe and different countries put their own spin on the traditions. For example, Dutch children leave hay and carrots in their shoes to attract St. Nick’s horse.
What does St. Nicholas have to do with today’s Santa?
As with most of our traditions in the USA, Christmas as we know it evolved from many cultures, and St. Nicholas Day certainly inspired our Christmas. One of the first instances of St. Nicholas in the present day United States occurred when Spaniards named an early settlement St. Nicholas Ferry (it’s now Jacksonville, Florida). After that, colonists in New York and Pennsylvania were known to have St. Nicholas Day feasts, but there really wasn’t a unified vision of Santa until 1823 when the book A Visit From St. Nicholas (you probably know it as The Night Before Christmas) became popular. The book described St. Nick as an elf dressed in fur, and my personal favorite line:
“He had a broad face and a little round belly,
That shook, when he laughed like a bowlful of jelly.”
From there, companies like Coca Cola and Macy’s continued to shape our vision of Santa. So next time you feel like Christmas is getting too commercial, remember that it’s been that way since the 1920s!
Which brings us back to why St. Nicholas Day is so important- it reminds us that the true origins of Christmas have nothing to do with holiday shopping frenzies, and everything to do with giving to those less fortunate.
Do you celebrate St. Nicholas Day? Leave your St. Nick memories in the comments!