St. Nicholas Day: Celebrate the saint who inspired Santa Claus

Portrait of man with long white beard, white hair and red bishop's hat

In some European countries, “St. Nicholas” rides into cities in a procession. Photo courtesy of Wikimedia Commons

SATURDAY, DECEMBER 6: Santa Claus may be making his appearance in malls across America, but the real St. Nick—the historical bishop of Myra, that is—makes his grand appearance around the world on St. Nicholas Day. From the Netherlands to the France, Germany, Italy, Austria and Bulgaria, St. Nicholas Day is greeted with beloved customs, special baked goods, processions and reenactments. In many countries, St. Nicholas Day is an opportunity to move away from the commercialization of the holiday season, and toward the “true meaning” of Christmas—as a time of giving, reflection and gratitude. A 4th-century Christian leader renowned for immense generosity, St. Nicholas is known as the protector of children and is the patron saint of an entire list of cities and peoples.

Did you know? Many Christmas traditions, such as the candy cane or stocking hung by the fire, can be traced back to stories of St. Nicholas. In most of the world, the candy cane represents Bishop Nicholas’ crozier; stockings hung by the fire reference the story of St. Nicholas filling peasant girls’ stockings with dowry.

Throughout Europe, St. Nicholas Day brings spiced gingerbread biscuits and children leave their shoes out the evening of Dec. 5, to be filled with treats. (Wikipedia has details.)

French households are especially likely to smell of spiced gingerbread biscuits, while children learn songs and poems about St. Nicholas in school. The Italian fair known as Fiera di San Nicolo can last more than a week. In Serbia, St. Nicholas is the most popular family patron saint.

Bishop Nicholas with a child on either side of him

A St. Nicholas postcard. Photo by Janwillemsen, courtesy of Flickr

NICHOLAS OF MYRA: THE SAINT BEHIND SANTA CLAUS

The story of St. Nicholas begins in modern-day Turkey, with a baby born into a wealthy Christian family. Fate quickly turned when the young St. Nicholas became an orphan. Taking to heart the words of Jesus—“sell what you own and give the money to the poor”—Nicholas used his inheritance to help the needy, devoted his life to God, and was made Bishop of Myra. Through the years, Nicholas would become renowned for his humble and generous spirit. (Learn more from Women for Faith and Family and Catholic Culture.)

Though persecuted for his faith, Nicholas remained steadfast in his beliefs, and his story spread far and wide. Following his death, a relic called manna formed on his grave, and the substance became known for its healing abilities. The date of St. Nicholas’ death soon became widely celebrated.

RESOURCES:
ST. NICHOLAS CENTER OFFERS ACTIVITIES, RECIPES & MORE

To make the traditions and customs of St. Nicholas Day available to the world, the St. Nicholas Center was created, as a nonprofit organization for everything related to the famed bishop of Myra.

Interested in the life of St. Nicholas? Learn more here. For children, check out this page. For youth groups, visit here.

Cook up Speculaas cookies, gluten-free Speculoos and Ukrainian Christmas Honey Cookies, with cookie recipes here.

Get crafty with suggestions and directions, here.

What makes a Dutch St. Nicholas party unique? Find out—and host your own version of the party—by visiting here.

St. Nicholas Day blessings, and other faith-based resources, are here.

This year, the Saint Nicholas Center is offering more than 100 new articles and resources, such as printable ornaments, figures and candy wrappers, a St. Nicholas community outreach and a completed section of Church Year Resources for families.

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