Monday, December 06, 2010

Jolly old St. Nicholas

Today is St. Nicholas' Day. And I don't mean Santa Claus.

In many parts of the world, December 6 is the day when St. Nicholas visits children and leaves them little presents.

photo: IUPUI School of Liberal Arts
When I was a kid, my family spent several months in Austria, and we had a chance to see this custom. On this day, Austrian children are visited by a white-bearded man in a long robe and a bishop's miter.*

It's easy to see the similarities between the St. Nicholas of European countries and Santa Claus of the U.S., but what's really interesting are the differences.

Obviously, there's the outfit. I'd imagine it's pretty hard to get down chimneys in a robe and miter, and there's probably no room for the bishop's staff in the sleigh.

Then there's the date: December 6 was the date of Nicholas' death in AD 343, so the feast day set aside to honor him uses that date.

And even though the celebration of that day involves gifts, it's not a Christmas thing. Our Austrian neighbors waited until Christmas Eve to put up their Christmas tree. (And the fresher the tree the better, when you're lighting it with real candles.)

I'd guess that the date's proximity to Christmas caused an eventual melding of the two holidays.

But I think Americans are poorer for the loss of St. Nicholas' Day.

*In Austria, Nicholas is accompanied by a creepy devil-like figure named Krampus who doles out punishments to the naughty. And now you know where the coal and switches come from.



  1. There are so many fun Saint Days in this season. In some Scandanavian countries they start celebrating the Christmas season on St Lucia's day (Dec 13) and go until St Knut's Day (Jan 13). I kind of want to celebrate St Knut's Day

  2. R.: You're right, there are quite a few! My knowledge of St. Lucia is very limited, and of St. Knut... nonexistent! Since you're of Scandinavian heritage, maybe you could blog about them?


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