Saint Nicholas Day is December 6th and is celebrated in different ways all around the world. The feast day falls early in Advent each year, and in places where St. Nicholas day is prominent it, not Christmas, is the major gift-giving opportunity. Most often, stockings and shoes are left out and St. Nicholas comes to fill them with snacks, candies, and small gifts. The gifts are intended to be shared with others.
The Real St. Nicholas
The story of St. Nicholas begins with his birth in what is now Turkey. His parents died in an epidemic when he was still young and so, following the teachings of Jesus, he sold his possessions and gave his inheritance to the needy. He became a bishop at a rather young age and became well known for his generosity to those in needs as well as his kindness and love for children.
St. Nicholas was persecuted under the Emperor Diocletian. For their faith alone, during this time, many priests, bishops, and deacons were exiled and imprisoned. St. Nicholas was released but died later on December 6, 343 AD. The day of his death is celebrated as his feast day each year in memory of his life and deeds. In fact, the stories are what keep the essence of his extraordinary character in tact with the celebration.
Many countries around the world celebrate the feast day in a variety of ways. Most involve the telling of tales that encourage children to behave and to respect others.
In France, for example, there is a tale that two children wandered away and became lost. A butcher then lured them to his shop and beat and salted them in a tub. St. Nicholas, however, intervened and returned the boys to their families. Through time the butcher character has become Père Fouettard, who is said to carry switches to threaten children as he follows St. Nicholas in his visiting. In celebration, the mayor gives the key of the city to the saint and there are parades as well as feasts and musical entertainment.
Many traditions involve children writing letters to the saint stating promises of good behavior for the coming year. Socks and shoes are left hanging by fireplaces, registers, or doors for St. Nicholas to fill with treats. Activities for the celebration can be incorporated with and provide enrichment for the Advent season.
This celebration is also used as an opportunity to collect food, items, and money for the needy. In Switzerland, adults and teenagers go door-to-door on the eve of the feast day to collect donations and deliver them to charities. Many Orthodox and Episcopal churches in the United States do something similar to help those suffering.
The Pennsylvania Dutch called St. Nicholas "Pelts Nickel," which means "St. Nicholas in fur," since the children knew him as a man who dressed in animal furs. "Pelts Nicholas" became "Pelz Nickel" and eventually became "Belsnickle" in America. Children feared him but eagerly awaited his arrival. A Belsnickle is generally a bearded man, dressed in furs, carrying a sack of treats to deliver to good children and a stick to discipline bad ones. Unlike Santa Claus, however, Belsnickle is tall and thin like St. Nicholas.
Isn't St. Nicholas Really Santa?
Nope—Santa Claus, as we know him, developed to enrich the commercial aspect of Christmas. St. Nicholas delivered Christ's message of peace and love through his kindness and love towards children. While the "St. Nick" we reference as Santa may resemble images of St. Nicholas and bear his likenesses, keep in mind that St. Nicholas is one saint in the communion of many whose examples and prayers direct our lives daily. At Christmastime,St. Nicholas points us to Jesus while Santa merely encourages gift giving.