December 6th is eagerly awaited among children across Europe. It marks the beginning of Christmas season. It is a day of gift-giving rooted from story of St. Nicholas known for his generosity and protection of children. He was one of the most popular saints in the Greek as well as the Latin Church, but his story is more of a legend than historical knowledge. St. Nicholas transformed into the legendary character called Santa Claus.
St. Nicholas – Who Is He Really?
The man who came to be known as St. Nicholas was born during the third century in the village of Patara in Greece, now southern coast of Turkey. He was a devout Christian. His wealthy parents died in a epidemic when he was young. He inherited a fortune and spend it to assist the poor. He was known for his generosity to those in need and love for children. He became of bishop on Myra where he lived most of his life.
There are many legends about St. Nicholas. One tells how he helped three poor sisters.Three times, St. Nicholas secretly went to their house at night and put a bag of money inside. Over the years, stories about his work for the poor spread around the world. He became known as protector of children and was associated with gift-giving.
St. Nicholas Day in Europe
The day of his death, which is believed to be December 6th, became popular around Europe for gift-giving. It was a common practice for children to put out their shoes the night before. In the morning, they would discover the gifts that St. Nicholas had left there for them.
St. Nicholas Day, Dzien Świętego Mikołaja, in Poland
In the old days, someone in the family was usually selected to be St. Nicholas and, in villages, he would be driven in a sleigh from house to house. He asked children if they were naughty or nice and if they knew their prayers, and then he would give them sweets, nuts, and apples pulled from under his cloak.
Over time, that changed. In modern days, the night before St. Nicholas Day, children would put out they freshly polished shoes hoping that when wake up next morning they will find candy and small present. The gifts are placed in the children’s shoes during the night.
This is how it was done it in my house too. I remember December 6th as one of the happiest days during the entire year. The nights were already long, it was cold outside, and Christmas was still far away. It was a nice break.
It was also very special because at that time in communist Poland stores were not filled with goodies. Oranges and bananas would show up on the shelves only before Christmas.
Our parents made sure to get them for us, even though that always required standing in line, often for hours. To this day a smell of oranges brings my memories of joy.
The best part about St. Nicholas Day was that he would be coming back to us for on Christmas Eve with even more presents. This time he would put them under the tree in the evening, unlike in America at night before Christmas Day. I never questioned it, but I still do not understand why he would do it twice. I certainly was not complaining about it.
Learn about Christmas Traditions Around the World.
How St. Nicholas became Santa Clause
St. Nicholas was a especially important figure in Holland. Early Dutch settlers in New York brought their traditions of St Nicholas, known to them as Sint Nikolaas or by his nickname Sinter Klaas, in 1700s. The name Santa Claus was derived from the Dutch Sinter Klass pronunciation of St. Nicholas.
As children from other countries tried to pronounce Sinter Klass, this soon became Santa Klass, and eventually Santa Claus. Dutch brought with them their tradition of giving gifts but instead of December 6th, it became a part of the Christmas holiday.
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See Comparing Sinterklass and Santa Clause
Learn more of the story of St. Nicholas