December 6th is the feast day of St. Nicholas. St. Nicholas Day goes largely uncelebrated in the United States, but in many countries St. Nicholas is the primary gift giver of the holiday season and his feast day supersedes Christmas as the main day of gifting. Where the holiday is celebrated, children put out their freshly polished shoes or boots on the windowsill on the evening of the fifth. That night, St. Nicholas visits children’s houses and fills their shoes with apples, oranges, almonds, candies, or other small gifts.
The details of the celebrations vary from country to country. For example, in the Netherlands, St. Nicholas takes the form of Sinterklaas who arrives in the country by boat from Spain in late November. Accompanying him is his servant, Zwarte Piet, dressed in the garb of a German mercenary (Zwarte Piet means ‘Black Pete’ and traditionally has been a white man dressed in black face. There is an ongoing controversy in the Netherlands about whether or not Zwarte Piet is a figure of racism, which I am not going to get into in this post! If you’d like to read more about the controversy, HuffPost has a decent summary here.)
The historical St. Nicholas lived in the fourth century and was bishop of Myra in Lycia (present day Turkey). This is why we still see images of St. Nicholas carrying a bishop’s crosier (staff with a curl at the top) and wearing a mitre (pointy bishop hat). St. Nicholas is said to have performed many miracles, given away his vast inheritance to the poor, and rescued the city in a time of famine. More than 400 years after his death, his bones were taken from Myra to the Italian harbor town of Bari, after which his popularity began to spread throughout Europe and his feast day became a more popular celebration.
A simple St. Nicholas celebration:
If you would like to celebrate St. Nicholas Day with your children this year, it can be done quite simply. On the evening of December 5th, tell a simple St. Nicholas story. Many St. Nicolas stories an be found here:
There are a wide-range of stories varying from the religious to the secular, so you should be able to find one that reflects your family’s beliefs.
Then, have your children clean a pair of their shoes or boots with a rag and set them either outside their bedroom door or by a windowsill. During the night, St. Nicholas can pay a visit and leave special treats inside the shoes such as oranges, chocolate, candy canes, a note, poem, or whatever else is special and at hand!