Saint Nicholas or Santa Claus???
Saint Nicholas, was the “gift giver” I was familiar with during my childhood. He had a white beard, was dressed in bishop’s garbs, carried a crozier, and arrived on a white horse. On December 6th, he was visiting well-behaved children and placing candy and cookies under their pillows. If you were really good, then he would drop off more goodies on Christmas Eve. You also were expected to know your Catechism, in case he decided to quiz you, before leaving you a gift. We recited prayers and songs dedicated to St. Nicholas, instead of leaving him milk and cookies.
I was not familiar with “Santa” the chubby, jolly old man with a white beard, dressed in a red suit and an elf‘s hat, with deer pulling his sleigh. Oh well, those were the days, when Christmas was about the Birth of Christ, rather than Christmas shopping, and children were happy with whatever they received, even if it was not exactly what they wished for.
My children grew up knowing both “gift givers”; St. Nicholas on December 6th, and Santa Claus on Christmas Eve. You would think that it couldn’t get better than that…..until, one year they asked if we could celebrate Hanukkah, so they could receive gifts for eight days….…..figure that!!
St. Nicholas was a bishop, who was born in a small city in Greco-Roman Lycia, an area known now as Turkey. He was a bishop of the coastal city of Myra. He was a man of great caring and generosity, and a gift giver to children and the needy. There is an urban legend that St. Nicholas dropped gold coins into the hanging stocking of three young ladies, who were too poor to get married, as their father did not have enough money for a dowry. St. Nicholas is also known as the father of Orthodoxy. He lived a long life and died on December 6th, 343 A.D.
Saint Nicholas Day is a commemorative celebration of St. Nicholas and is celebrated on December 6th, according to the Gregorian calendar, or on December 19th by the Julian calendar.
I have great respect for Saint Nicholas, and would like to introduce you to this celebration around the world, but mostly in countries nearest to my location. As for the jolly old man in a red suit, that will have to be another story, later on.
I came across a site which alphabetically lists 34 different counties, from Aruba to the United States, describing their traditional celebration of St. Nicholas Day. I will share a few inserts with you, but for more detail and countries of your interest, you should check out this site.
St. Nicholas, Sviatyij Mykolai, comes to Ukraine on December 6th (or the 19th in the Orthodox/Julian calendar). It is a happy day with visiting and sleigh rides. Schools have plays telling Nicholas stories and the saint visits local churches. Dressed as a Byzantine bishop, the good saint is often accompanied by angels. He quizzes children on their catechism before giving gifts. St. Nicholas Day is the main day for gift-giving, though gifts are also becoming associated with Christmas Day. Today many Ukrainian churches have St. Nicholas celebrations to help children understand that the holy man Nicholas came long before Santa Claus.
St. Nicholas, called Sw. Mikolaj, is a saintly, dignified figure in Poland; he comes as a bishop, carrying crosier. Descending from Heaven with an angel helper, he travels on foot or in a sleigh pulled by a white horse as he visits homes in the countryside. When he appears, the eager children cry, “He has come! He has come!” St. Nicholas’ presence fills the room with his smile, the twinkle in his eye, and his welcoming, booming voice. Children recite their catechism and prayers.
St. Nicholas rebukes or praises, as appropriate, before distributing holy pictures, red apples or oranges, and pierniki (saint cookies made with honey and spices). If he doesn’t come in person, treats are put under sleeping children’s pillows or left in freshly cleaned and polished shoes left out for the saint. St. Nicholas acts in his traditional religious role as a protector and patron saint while encouraging Polish children to be well-behaved, as there are switches for naughty children.
Bishop St. Nicholas is celebrated by many churches and by communities which have a Dutch heritage. On the Advent Sunday closest to St. Nicholas Day, December 6, some churches have St. Nicholas festivals, large or small, with the good saint himself appearing to greet children, give instruction and encouragement, and hand out treats for children of all ages. In some places he is a focus in worship and in others he is part of a special fellowship event. St. Nicholas may also be the inspiration for a special Advent project—one which shows his concern for justice and relief of suffering. These observances are most prevalent in Orthodox and Episcopal churches, though not uncommon in many others, as well.
Many immigrant groups brought treasured traditions to Canada; Ukrainians and Dutch are among those who celebrate St. Nicholas. For Ukrainians, Christmas begins with St. Nicholas Day, when young children receive small gifts from their patron saint, Nicholas.
Parishes and schools remember Nicholas’ providing dowry money for needy young women by giving small bags of gold-colored coins to children. The children sing to welcome the saint, louder and more enthusiastically as they wait. The saint, on foot or by sleigh, comes dressed as a resplendent Byzantine bishop, accompanied by a troupe of angels. The angels help distribute goodies and small gifts.
Hopefully, he’ll place something nice under your pillow on December 6th, or December 19th, depending on the calendar you follow.
Happy St. Nicholas Day.