St. Nicholas's Day

St. Nicholas's Day

During the Middle Ages St. Nicholas was one of the most venerated saints in western Europe. Although his popularity has since declined, his feast day, December 6, is still celebrated in the Netherlands and other European countries. Immigrants brought the legends and customs surrounding St. Nicholas with them to the United States. There the saint was transformed into the American Christmas season gift bringer called Santa Claus.

Shoes, Stockings, and Gifts

In Austria, the Netherlands, Belgium, Czechoslovakia, and parts of Germany, folk tradition cast St. Nicholas in the role of 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 distributes presents to others in honor of his feast day. On the night of December 5 he brings fruit, nuts, cookies, candy, and other small 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 deposit his gifts. In the Netherlands children leave their shoes by the fireplace. In Czechoslovakia children attract the saint's attention with stockings hanging on the window frame. In Austria Nicholas knows to look for children's shoes on the windowsill. 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 can compel 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 with his blackened face, scarlet eyes, horns, and clanking chains. Incidentally, the name "Klaubauf" is a contraction of the German phrase Klaub auf!, which means "pick 'em up." This is an especially appropriate name since St. Nicholas and his 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 along behind Nicholas. These sinister figures often carry a heavy sack of gifts, the book in which the saint has recorded the children'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. By the twelfth century these dramas had evolved into "St. Nicholas Plays," which were usually produced by choirboys in honor of the saint's feast day (seealso Nativity Plays). These plays retold some of the most widely known legends concerning St. Nicholas and were quite popular during the late Middle Ages, when the cult of St. Nicholas reached its zenith in western Europe. They present us with some of the earliest surviving European plays that take as their subject matter 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 believe that ordinary people adopted the custom, spreading it from France to other parts of northern Europe. Other writers suppose that the folklore surrounding St. Martin may have inspired the traditions that turned St. Nicholas into a gift giver. In past centuries St. Martin, another bishop-saint, was said to ride through the countryside delivering treats to children on the eve of his feast day (see Martinmas). In the Netherlands Nicholas's helper Black Peter wears sixteenth-century clothing, which may indicate that St. Nicholas was bringing gifts to Dutch children at least as far back as that era.

Western Europeans honored Nicholas as the patron saint of children. Some of the customs associated with his feast day gave children the opportunity to reign over adults. For example, in medieval times the festivities surrounding the boy bishop often began on St. Nicholas's Day. The boy bishop, a boy who assumed the rank of bishop for a short while, was one of the mock rulers who presided over Christmas season merrymaking in the Middle Ages (see also King of the Bean; Lord of Misrule). In the sixteenth century, schoolboys in the British Isles hit upon the idea of barring out the schoolmaster in order to gain a few days' vacation. This custom, which continued for several centuries, was often 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 who wished 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 had achieved 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 of St. Nicholas in the Netherlands, weeks before his feast day. Each year the arrival of St. Nicholas and Black Peter from their home in far-off Spain is reenacted in Amsterdam, the capital of the Netherlands. A great crowd gathers to witness the 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 his red bishop's robe, miter, crook, and long white beard. After greeting the mayor, the saint and his helper lead a parade to Amsterdam's central plaza. There the royal family officially welcomes Holland's Christmas season gift bringers. This event is broadcast on Dutch television.

In the weeks that follow, store windows display treats and gifts appropriate for St. Nicholas's Day. Meanwhile, children dream of the evening when they will put their shoes by the hearth to receive gifts from the kindly saint. Dutch folklore asserts that Nicholas and Black Peter, mounted on the saint's magical white horse, fly across Holland on St. Nicholas's Eve distributing gifts to children. Black Peter does the dirty work of slipping down the chimneys to deposit the children's gifts. He also collects the carrots, hay, and sugar that thoughtful children have left there for St. Nicholas's horse. If the two should find any children who misbehave frequently, they leave a rod or switch, warning of punishment to 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 at this meal. Some cooks mark each person's place at the table with letterbankets, large, marzipan-filled pastries shaped like 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, Black Peter, to visit these parties. Sometimes they just open the door, throw candies into the room, and dash away (see also Julklapp). Other times they enter and deliver these treats to the children in person, along with advice and admonitions concerning future behavior. Adults know that friends or family members are impersonating these figures, but children are 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-Avond in 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. Sometimes the package only contains a clue as to where the real gift is hidden. Other times small gifts are wrapped in a succession of much larger boxes. The Dutch take great care in composing humorous lines of verse to accompany these gifts. Everyone looks forward to hearing these short poems read out loud. Those who can't come up with something 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 the Dutch parliament may be surprised to find the nation's politicians occasionally delivering a short rhyming speech in honor 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 is observed 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 flock to the saint's tomb in the Church of San Nicola. A procession escorts a statue of the saint from his tomb down to the harbor. Followers place the image on the deck of a flower-strewn boat which is escorted out to sea by hundreds of small vessels carrying fishermen and pilgrims. After the day's festivities worshipers escort the image back to the Church of San Nicola.

Further Reading

Bragdon, Allen D. Joy Through the World. New York: Dodd, Mead, and Company, 1985. Henderson, Helene, and Sue Ellen 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.

Web Site

A site sponsored by the Netherlands Board of Tourism, contains a page describing St. Nicholas Day celebrations: (Search "Sinterklaas" and "St. Nicholas")
Encyclopedia of Christmas and New Year's Celebrations, 2nd ed. © Omnigraphics, Inc. 2003

St. Nicholas's Day

December 6
Very little is known about St. Nicholas's life, except that in the fourth century he was the bishop of Myra in what is now Turkey. One of the legends surrounding him is that he saved three sisters from being forced into prostitution by their poverty-stricken father by throwing three bags of gold into their room, thus providing each of them with a dowry. This may be the source of St. Nicholas's association with gift giving.
On December 6 in the Netherlands, St. Nicholas, or Sinterklass, still rides into town on a white horse, dressed in his red bishop's robes and preceded by "Black Peter," a Satanic figure in Moorish costume who beats the bad children with a switch while rewarding the good children with candy and gifts. He is the patron saint of sailors, and churches dedicated to him are often built so they can be seen off the coast as landmarks.
The American Santa Claus, a corruption of "St. Nicholas," is a cross between the original St. Nicholas and the British "Father Christmas." The political cartoonist Thomas Nast created a Santa Claus dressed in furs and looking more like King Cole—an image that grew fatter and merrier over the years, until he became the uniquely American figure that adorns thousands of cards, decorations, and homes throughout the Christmas season. Although Americans open their gifts on Christmas or Christmas Eve, in the Netherlands, Switzerland, Germany, and some other European countries, gifts are still exchanged on December 5, St. Nicholas's Eve, or December 6, St. Nicholas's Day.
Netherlands Board of Tourism & Conventions
355 Lexington Ave., 19th Fl.
New York, NY 10017
888-464-6552 or 212-370-7360; fax: 212-370-9507
AmerBkDays-2000, p. 814
BkDays-1864, vol. II, p. 661
BkFest-1937, pp. 34, 48, 129, 190, 245
DaysCustFaith-1957, p. 306
EncyChristmas-2003, pp. 674, 680
FestSaintDays-1915, p. 219
FestWestEur-1958, pp. 19, 49, 81, 118, 144
FolkAmerHol-1999, p. 485
FolkWrldHol-1999, p. 686
OxYear-1999, p. 486
SaintFestCh-1904, p. 11

Celebrated in: Greece, Italy

St. Nicholas's Day (Greece)
December 6
As the patron saint of ships and seamen, St. Nicholas is very important to the Greeks, so many of whom have traditionally made their living at sea. Many Greek ships, from the smallest fishing boat to the largest commercial vessel, carry an icon of the saint on board. Seamen honor St. Nicholas on his feast day, which falls at a time of year when storms grow more frequent, by burning a light before this icon and saying prayers for the safety of their boat or ship.
BkFest-1937, p. 154
BkFestHolWorld-1970, p. 130

Celebrated in: Greece

St. Nicholas's Day (Italy)
May 7-8
The Festa di San Nicola is celebrated in Italy on May 7 and 8, the anniversary of the transfer of the saint's relics by a group of 11th-century sailors from Bari, who risked their lives to rescue St. Nicholas's body from Muslims who threatened to desecrate his tomb at Myra in Asia Minor. This is the same St. Nicholas who is associated with Christmas and the giving of gifts to children. Therefore he is the patron saint of children.
Thousands of pilgrims come to the Basilica of San Nicola in Bari, Puglia, to worship at the saint's tomb and to ask for his help. Nicholas is also the patron saint of sailors. There is a procession on this day in which a group of Barese sailors take the saint's image down to the water, where it is placed on a flower-decked boat and taken out to sea. Hundreds of small craft carrying pilgrims and fishermen accompany the vessel, and at night the statue is returned to its place of honor on the altar of San Nicola's crypt.
Assessorato al Turismo Regione Puglia
Via Bozzi 45C
Bari, Puglia 70122 Italy
BkDays-1864, vol. II, p. 663
BkFest-1937, p. 190
EncyChristmas-2003, p. 684
FeastSaintDays-1915, p. 224
FestWestEur-1958, p. 96

Celebrated in: Italy

Holidays, Festivals, and Celebrations of the World Dictionary, Fourth Edition. © 2010 by Omnigraphics, Inc.
References in classic literature ?
It happened in the 'seventies in winter, on the day after St. Nicholas's Day. There was a fete in the parish and the innkeeper, Vasili Andreevich Brekhunov, a Second Guild merchant, being a church elder had to go to church, and had also to entertain his relatives and friends at home.