Today is the feast day of St. Nicholas of Myra. He was an early Christian bishop of the ancient Greek maritime city of Myra (now Turkey) during the time of the Roman Empire.
Many miracles attributed to his intercession led to his sainthood. His reputation evolved among the faithful and his legendary habit of secret gift-giving led to the traditional model of Santa Claus (“Saint Nick”),
Sinterklaas arriving in the Dutch town of Schiedam Image: WikimediaSaint Nicholas Day is observed on December 5/6 in Western Christian countries and December 19 in Eastern Christian countries on the Old Calendar. This day is celebrated as a Christian festival, but along with the attendance of Mass or other worship services, there are gifting traditions.
In Europe, especially in Germany and Poland, boys would dress as bishops begging alms for the poor.
In Ukraine, children wait for St. Nicholas to come and to put a present under their pillows. Gifts traditionally are given to children who were good during the year. Children who behaved badly may expect to find a twig or a piece of coal under their pillows.
In the Netherlands, Dutch children put out a clog shoe filled with hay and a carrot for Saint Nicholas’ horse. “Santa Claus” is itself derived in part from the Dutch Sinterklaas, the saint’s name in that language.
Some American children leave their shoes in the foyer on Saint Nicholas Eve in hope that Saint Nicholas will place some gifts or coins on the soles. The American Santa Claus, as well as the British Father Christmas, derive from Saint Nicholas and some traditions from other countries have been passed on, but the gift-giving tradition has been moved to Christmas Eve or Day rather than Saint Nicholas Day.
Besides Sinterklaas, earlier names for the legendary figure based on Saint Nicholas as a patron saint of children include De Sint (“The Saint”), De Goede Sint (“The Good Saint”), and De Goedheiligman (“The Good Holy Man”) in Dutch; Saint Nicolas in French; Sinteklaas in West Frisian; Sinterklaos in Limburgs; Saint-Nikloi in West Flemish; Kleeschen and Zinniklos in Luxembourgish; and Sankt Nikolaus or Nikolaus in German.
Of course, there is no hard evidence of any Nicholas type person’s miracles and the legend doesn’t stand up to scientific analysis. And most of what Americans now associate with Santa Claus (flying reindeer, down the chimney and other supernatural powers) come from the marketing of the commercialized version of Christmas.
Most people don’t know that while Saint Nicholas is the patron saint of children, he is also the patron saint of sailors, merchants, archers, repentant thieves, prostitutes, children, brewers, pawnbrokers, and students in various cities and countries around Europe.
Some of the traditions followed in other countries bear little resemblance to the legendary St. Nick we know in the United States.
In Italy, San Nicola) is the patron of the city of Bari (where it is believed that his stolen remains are found) and their celebration is called the Festa di San Nicola. That occurs on May 7–9 of May and includes the relics of the saint carried on a boat on the sea in front of the city with many boats following (Festa a mare).
Also, since San Nicola is said to protect children and virgins, on this day in December the ritual of Rito delle nubili finds unmarried women seeking a husband at an early-morning Mass, in which they have to turn around a column 7 times.
My own childhood included not only Santa Claus and St. Nicholas but also the terrifying Krampus. My mother’s family were from Austria and my father’s side from Austria-Hungary (though Slovak by language). In those places, as well as in Bavaria and Tyrol, Hungary, Slovenia, the Czech Republic, the Slovak Republic and Croatia, this creature with Germanic folklore roots appears.
You may have heard that Santa Claus keeps a list of who is naughty and who is nice, but Krampus is a horned, anthropomorphic figure described as “half-goat, half-demon” who accompanies St. Nick. This demonic figure of the Krampus has the job of punishing children during the Yule season who have misbehaved. When I asked my mother how he punishes kids she sais “You don’t want to know.” He also sometimes captures the really naughty children in his sack and carries them away to his lair.
In some of these countries, the eve of St. NIck is called Krampus Night or Krampusnacht and that’s when he appears. In modern times, young men will dress up as the Krampus before St. Nicholas Day frightening children with rusty chains and bells. Sometimes accompanying St. Nicholas and sometimes on his own, Krampus visits homes and businesses.
When the Saint himself appears nowadays, he is usually in the Eastern Rite vestments of a bishop, and he carries a ceremonial staff.
Nicholas gives gifts. When not terrorizing children, Krampus supplies coal and ruten bundles. That is an object with pagan origins that may have had significance in pre-Christian initiation rites. They are bundles of birch branches that Krampus carries and with which he occasionally swats children.