I did not grow up celebrating Saint Nicholas Day. Having been raised in a Southern Baptist family, I only knew Saint Nick as another name for Santa Claus, and he visited my house on Christmas Eve to eat cookies and milk and bring me American Girl dolls.
Now, as an adult convert to the Catholic faith, I have a new appreciation of this famous saint and look forward to celebrating his feast day each year. But even if you aren’t Catholic, Saint Nicholas Day can be a fun addition to the holiday season!
Who was Saint Nicholas?
Saint Nicholas was born in the fourth century in a Greek town called Patara. He eventually became a Christian bishop and was regarded as a faithful man who loved God and his people. He was even persecuted and imprisoned for his beliefs under the Roman emperor Diocletian. Eventually, he was released and later died on December 6th, which is the day we celebrate him today. He is remembered as a man who loved children, served the poor, and fought against heresy within the Church.
One of the most famous stories surrounding Saint Nicholas is about a man who had three daughters. Since the father could not afford dowries for his daughters, they were going to be sold into slavery. But on three separate nights before one of the daughters was to be sold, a bag of gold would mysteriously appear in their home, allowing the dowries to be paid and the daughters to be married. The story goes that the bags of gold were thrown through an open window and landed in shoes (or stockings) that were left in front of the fireplace to dry.
In the Middle Ages, gifts were given to children the night before Saint Nicholas Day in remembrance of the saint and his special love for children.
How did he become Santa Claus?
These days, Saint Nicholas and Santa Claus are pretty much interchangeable in the U.S. During the Reformation, fewer people celebrated Saint Nicholas Day, instead moving gift-giving to Christmas Eve or Christmas Day. During this time, the idea of Father Christmas emerged in England, representing the spirit of the season and depicted as a big man with fur-lined robes of red or green. The Victorian era revitalized this idea, taking Father Christmas and merging him with Saint Nicholas, creating a jolly man in red robes giving gifts to children.
Many of the current ideas we have about Santa Claus come from this new Victorian image of Saint Nicholas, as seen in the story “A Visit from St. Nicholas”. This story is now known as “The Night Before Christmas” and shows Saint Nicholas driving a sleigh pulled by reindeer, looking jolly and plump, filling stockings with treats, and magically floating up the family’s chimney.
How can you celebrate with your family?
Some families choose not to recognize Saint Nicholas Day at all, some celebrate both Saint Nicholas on his feast day and Santa Claus on Christmas, and some families celebrate Saint Nicholas without mentioning Santa Claus. There’s no one right way to go about it. But if Saint Nicholas Day sounds like a tradition you’d like to start with your family, here are just a few ways to get started!
- The night of December 5th, have everyone in the family put out a pair of shoes by the front door or the fireplace. In the morning the shoes will be filled with small treats from Saint Nicholas! Traditionally, shoes are filled with coins, small toys, oranges, and candy.
- Read one of the many books about Saint Nicholas (especially The Night Before Christmas) and learn about the saint’s love of children and faithfulness to God even in the face of persecution.
Since Saint Nicholas is the patron saint of Greece, take the day to learn something new about the country or cook a Greek dish.
- Bake traditional Speculaas cookies (a Dutch tradition) and secretly deliver them to family and friends.
- If you already buy gifts for an Angel Tree or participate in Operation Christmas Child, choose Saint Nicholas Day to wrap and package the gifts you bought.
- Saint Nicholas had a special place in his heart for children and the poor, so spend the day gathering donations for a homeless shelter, pregnancy center, or other charitable organization.
- Have December 6th be your family’s annual day to get pictures made with Santa.