Over the last 200 years, no image or idea has come to define the spirit of giving, goodness, and love as clearly as Santa Claus. The arrival of a mythical man who rewards the good and scolds the bad is universal around the world. Also known as Father Christmas, Kris Kringle, Papa Noel, and Babbo Natale, all Santas are modern day transformations of the real life ideals of St. Nicholas.
What Is St. Nicholas Day?
St. Nicholas Day, or Feast of St. Nicholas, is December 6 and marks the anniversary of the death of the third-century Catholic saint who inspired the modern versions of Santa Claus. Not to be confused with Christmas, St. Nicholas Day is also rooted in a tradition of giving, stemming from the saint's legendary generosity.
St. Nicholas is said to have sold all that he owned, giving the money to the poor. He dedicated his entire life serving and caring for the sick and suffering.
The tradition of receiving gifts from St. Nicholas is traced back to Dutch children, who would leave their shoes out the night before the holiday with hopes that Nicholas would bring them a treat.
Historically, gifts of shoes, stockings, or small toys and candy were left for good boys and girls. Naughty children received roots, twigs, or even coal.
The tradition made its way to the New World with the settlement of New Amsterdam, which, of course, is now New York.
Where Is St. Nicholas Day Celebrated?
Many countries around the world honor and celebrate St. Nicholas Day. As the patron saint of both Russia and Greece, St. Nicholas Day is honored in many small towns and villages in both countries. Because of its roots, St. Nicholas Day is celebrated greatly in the coastal regions of northwestern Europe, in areas of Belgium, the Netherlands, and Luxembourg.
The St. Nicholas Center tracks St. Nicholas Day customs worldwide. “Customs from forty-two countries show how in some places he is the major gift-giver,” they say, “while in others he is primarily a religious figure.”
How Is St. Nicholas Day Celebrated?
Children in Germany “tidy their rooms, clean their toys, and shoes and boots should be polished and set out by the door or on a windowsill,” according to the website German Culture. They also leave letters to him and leave treats for his white horse (or donkey). The next morning, the boots are filled with candy, nuts, and small gifts.
The tradition lives on in the French regions of Alsace, Lorranie, and Nord-Pas-de-Calais, near the France-Germany border. Children here also leave shoes out for St. Nicholas and are rewarded with chocolates and special gifts. On the day itself, tradition holds that a small donkey carries baskets of biscuits and sweets through the towns.
But nowhere is St. Nicholas Day more revered than in the Netherlands. The celebration actually kicks off on the second Saturday of November, when St. Nicholas, or Sinterklaas, departs Madrid, Spain, where he lives, to travel to a city or town in the Netherlands. Dutch children are to keep watch to get a glimpse of Sinterklaas and his helpers, known as Pietens. Tradition holds that they will arrive in a harbor via a steamboat. When they arrive, local church bells ring in celebration. For the next few weeks, Sinterklaas and his helpers visit children in places like schools and hospitals to determine if they’ve been good -- if they have, they might find treats in their shoes. Families exchange gifts on the evening of December 5, St. Nicholas Eve.
A Lasting Legacy
The inspiration behind Santa Claus remains a noted religious figure. Pilgrimages to the Basilica of St. Nicholas in Bari, Italy, continue to this day, according to the St. Nicholas Center, and he remains a model and symbol of living a compassionate life.