St. Nicholas’s Day
Shoes, Stockings, and Gifts
In Austria, the Netherlands, Belgium, Czechoslovakia, and parts of Germany, folk tradition cast St. Nicholas in the roleof a Christmas season gift bringer. Folk representations of St. Nicholas usually portray him as an elderly white-bearded man who carries a bishop’s staff and dresses in a red bishop’s robe and miter. This kindly saint distributespresents to others in honor of his feast day. On the night of December 5 he brings fruit, nuts, cookies, candy, and othersmall gifts to well-behaved children. Those who have misbehaved too often during the year might receive a stick,warning them of punishment to come.
Children expecting presents on St. Nicholas’s Eve helpfully provide small receptacles in which the saint may deposithis gifts. In the Netherlands children leave their shoes by the fireplace. In Czechoslovakia children attract the saint’sattention with stockings hanging on the window frame. In Austria Nicholas knows to look for children’s shoes on thewindowsill. Perhaps inspired by legends of pagan spirits descending into homes via the smoke from the hearth, St.Nicholas often enters homes through the chimney (see also Berchta).
St. Nicholas’s Helpers
The powerful saint does not have to carry out his gift-giving activities alone. According to some folk traditions, he cancompel a minor demon to aid him in his mission. In Czechoslovakia this devil is known as a cert. In parts of Germany,Austria, and Switzerland a shaggy demon called Klaubauf, or Krampus, serves St. Nicholas. He frightens children withhis blackened face, scarlet eyes, horns, and clanking chains. Incidentally, the name “Klaubauf” is a contraction of theGerman phrase Klaub auf!, which means “pick ’em up.” This is an especially appropriate name since St. Nicholas andhis helper often toss their goodies on the floor. In other parts of Germany a rough fellow named Knecht Ruprecht, or“Knight Ruprecht,” sometime aids the saint. In the Netherlands a menacing character called Black Peter tags alongbehind Nicholas. These sinister figures often carry a heavy sack of gifts, the book in which the saint has recorded thechildren’s behavior, and a stick with which to smack misbehavers.
As early as the tenth century, St. Nicholas’s Day was observed with liturgical dramas retelling the story of the saint. Bythe twelfth century these dramas had evolved into “St. Nicholas Plays,” which were usually produced by choirboys inhonor of the saint’s feast day (seealso Nativity Plays). These plays retold some of the most widely known legendsconcerning St. Nicholas and were quite popular during the late Middle Ages, when the cult of St. Nicholas reached itszenith in western Europe. They present us with some of the earliest surviving European plays that take as their subjectmatter something other than Christian scripture.
Some researchers think that the custom of giving gifts to children on St. Nicholas’s Day started in the twelfth century.At that time nuns from central France started to leave gifts on the doorsteps of poor families with children on St.Nicholas’s Eve. These packages contained nuts and oranges and other good things to eat. Some researchers believethat ordinary people adopted the custom, spreading it from France to other parts of northern Europe. Other writerssuppose that the folklore surrounding St. Martin may have inspired the traditions that turned St. Nicholas into a giftgiver. In past centuries St. Martin, another bishop-saint, was said to ride through the countryside delivering treats tochildren on the eve of his feast day (see Martinmas). In the Netherlands Nicholas’s helper Black Peter wearssixteenth-century clothing, which may indicate that St. Nicholas was bringing gifts to Dutch children at least as far backas that era.
Western Europeans honored Nicholas as the patron saint of children. Some of the customs associated with his feastday gave children the opportunity to reign over adults. For example, in medieval times the festivities surrounding theboy bishop often began on St. Nicholas’s Day. The boy bishop, a boy who assumed the rank of bishop for a shortwhile, was one of the mock rulers who presided over Christmas season merrymaking in the Middle Ages (see alsoKing of the Bean; Lord of Misrule). In the sixteenth century, schoolboys in the British Isles hit upon the idea of barringout the schoolmaster in order to gain a few days’ vacation. This custom, which continued for several centuries, wasoften practiced on St. Nicholas’s Day.
An early seventeenth-century document records a German Protestant minister’s displeasure with the myth that St.Nicholas brings gifts for children. His sentiments echoed the concerns of many Protestant leaders of that era whowished to do away with the veneration of saints. In the centuries that followed, the Christkindel, or “Christ Child,”became the Christmas season gift bringer in most of Germany. This change indicates that Protestant leaders hadachieved some success in their campaign against the saint.
St. Nicholas’s Day in the Netherlands
The Netherlands hosts Europe’s most extensive St. Nicholas Day celebrations. They begin with the official arrival ofSt. Nicholas in the Netherlands, weeks before his feast day. Each year the arrival of St. Nicholas and Black Peter fromtheir home in far-off Spain is reenacted in Amsterdam, the capital of the Netherlands. A great crowd gathers to witnessthe arrival of the ship bearing the saint and his helper. A white horse, St. Nicholas’s traditional mode of transport,stands ready to serve the saint. As the gift bringers descend from the ship, the crowd easily identifies Nicholas by hisred bishop’s robe, miter, crook, and long white beard. After greeting the mayor, the saint and his helper lead a paradeto Amsterdam’s central plaza. There the royal family officially welcomes Holland’s Christmas season gift bringers. Thisevent is broadcast on Dutch television.
In the weeks that follow, store windows display treats and gifts appropriate for St. Nicholas’s Day. Meanwhile, childrendream of the evening when they will put their shoes by the hearth to receive gifts from the kindly saint. Dutch folkloreasserts that Nicholas and Black Peter, mounted on the saint’s magical white horse, fly across Holland on St. Nicholas’sEve distributing gifts to children. Black Peter does the dirty work of slipping down the chimneys to deposit thechildren’s gifts. He also collects the carrots, hay, and sugar that thoughtful children have left there for St. Nicholas’shorse. If the two should find any children who misbehave frequently, they leave a rod or switch, warning of punishmentto come.
Families begin celebrating St. Nicholas’s Day on the evening of December 5 when they enjoy a special meal together.A traditional St. Nicholas’s Day dinner features roast chicken or duck. In addition, many special sweets are served atthis meal. Some cooks mark each person’s place at the table with letterbankets, large, marzipan-filled pastries shapedlike letters of the alphabet. Other St. Nicholas’s Day treats include speculaas, spicy butter cookies, oliebollen,doughnuts with raisins in them, and taai-taai, honey cookies. It is not unusual for St. Nicholas and his helper, BlackPeter, to visit these parties. Sometimes they just open the door, throw candies into the room, and dash away (see alsoJulklapp). Other times they enter and deliver these treats to the children in person, along with advice and admonitionsconcerning future behavior. Adults know that friends or family members are impersonating these figures, but childrenare often astonished by the pair’s detailed knowledge of their good and bad deeds during the past year.
Family members also exchange presents with one another at this time. In fact, St. Nicholas’s Eve, Sinterklaas-Avondin Dutch, is sometimes called Pakjes-Avond, or “Parcel Evening.” Attention falls less on the simple gifts themselves,however, than on the tricky way in which they are delivered and the rhyming verses that accompany them. Sometimesthe package only contains a clue as to where the real gift is hidden. Other times small gifts are wrapped in asuccession of much larger boxes. The Dutch take great care in composing humorous lines of verse to accompanythese gifts. Everyone looks forward to hearing these short poems read out loud. Those who can’t come up withsomething clever can hire one of the professional verse writers who ply their trade at department stores around St.Nicholas’s Day. Indeed, rhyming verses can be found throughout Dutch society at this time of year. Visitors to theDutch parliament may be surprised to find the nation’s politicians occasionally delivering a short rhyming speech inhonor of the holiday.
St. Nicholas’s Day in Italy
St. Nicholas’s Day festivities in Italy emphasize the saint’s role as the patron of seafarers. In Italy St. Nicholas Day isobserved on May 7 and May 8, dates that commemorate the arrival of the saint’s relics from their original tomb in Myra(now Demre), Turkey. The town of Bari, where the saint’s remains now rest, hosts a large celebration. Worshipers flockto the saint’s tomb in the Church of San Nicola. A procession escorts a statue of the saint from his tomb down to theharbor. Followers place the image on the deck of a flower-strewn boat which is escorted out to sea by hundreds ofsmall vessels carrying fishermen and pilgrims. After the day’s festivities worshipers escort the image back to theChurch of San Nicola.
Bragdon, Allen D. Joy Through the World. New York: Dodd, Mead, and Company, 1985. Henderson, Helene, and SueEllen Thompson, eds. Holidays, Festivals, andCelebrations of the World Dictionary. Second edition. Detroit, Mich.:Omnigraphics, 1997. Jones, E. Willis. The Santa Claus Book. New York: Walker and Company, 1976. MacDonald,Margaret Read, ed. The Folklore of World Holidays. Detroit, Mich.: Gale Research, 1992. McKnight, George. St.Nicholas, His Legend and His Role in the ChristmasCelebration and Other Popular Customs. 1917. Reprint.Williamstown, Mass.: Corner House Publishers, 1974. Miles, Clement A. Christmas in Ritual and Tradition. 1912.Reprint. Detroit, Mich.: Omnigraphics, 1990. Walsh, William S. The Story of Santa Klaus. 1909. Reprint. Detroit, Mich.:Omnigraphics, 1991.
A site sponsored by the Netherlands Board of Tourism, contains a page describing St. Nicholas Day celebrations:(Search “Sinterklaas” and “St. Nicholas”)