Today I am getting ready for greeting St Nicholas, Mikulás as we call him, in our household. I brought his character and his celebration with me from the old country.
Mikulás is the Hungarian name for St. Nicholas, better known as Santa to American children. But, in most European countries he visits households with children on the night of December 5th. He brings goodies and small gifts, depositing them in the boots, cleaned and set out for him.
If you travel to Europe around December 6th, chances are, you’ll bump into St. Nick. Or at least some traditions involving his person. Not the Santa Claus of Christmas Eve, but the one who visits kids on the night of December 5th.
Who Was St. Nicholas?
He didn’t look anything like the Santa Claus we all think of when we hear the name, but St Nicholas was a real person. Given that he lived in a warm climate, he didn’t wear the red and white suit we all know him for today. This image of Santa came much later, and from a different place.
Nicholas was a holy man, a bishop of Myra, sometime in the third century AD. He was born in the village of Patara, in a territory that was Greek at the time, now part of Turkey. His parents were wealthy and raised him to be a devout Christian. But, they died when Nicholas was still very young. They left him extremely wealthy, and already a follower of Christian values.
The main value he followed was not exclusively Christian, but humanitarian. All his life he was giving to the needy and to the less fortunate. He used up his inheritance by giving it away to those in need, and especially to children. By the time he became was Bishop of Myra, he was known for helping those in need, his love for children, and his concern for sailors.
St. Nicholas died on December 6th, 343AD in Myra. The anniversary of his death became the occasion for celebrating the Day of St Nick.
Celebrating St. Nikolaos in Greece
Since he lived in a territory that used to be Greece, St. Nicholas is very important in this country. In fact, he is the patron saint of Greece.
His main role is the protector of sailors and seamen. On his Feast Day, December 6th, people eat traditional dishes of fried cod and garlic sauce. The Greek Navy pays tribute to him with ceremonies at the Naval Academy.
Small fishing boats honor him, especially in the Greek islands. They sail decorated with blue and white lights during this time of the year.
Sailing ships carry an icon of St Nikolaos with them on their voyages. They bring him along, since he is the master of winds and storms. This tradition seems reminiscent of the ancient Greek religion. Also, if the ship is in danger, the captain prays to St Nikolaos for safe passage. He promises to bring a small ship of gold, silver or wood, called ex-voto, back if they return safely. After his safe return, he brings the ex-voto to the church and offers it to St Nikolaos as thanks. http://www.stnicholascenter.org/pages/greece/
St. Nikolaos is also considered a wonderworker for the Orthodox religion, a saint who works miracles. He brings unity to different churches.
St Nicholas in Turkey
The birthplace of St Nicholas is in today’s Turkey. Though a predominantly Muslim country, Turkey also celebrates him.
In the early 1950s Turkey realized that Santa Claus is St Nicholas. They decided to use this fact to attract visitors. For years, they held an Orthodox liturgy in St. Nicholas church on December 6th. To be fair, there are a few Orthodox people living in Turkey. They revere and celebrate St. Nick as their own. But those who celebrate him most are visitors.
If you go to Demre around December 6ht, you will encounter thousands of tourists. They come especially from Russia, in search for the roots of St Nicholas. Russians are an orthodox nation, and they consider St Nicholas the father of their religion.
Though they don’t consider him a saint, people in his native land remember and honor St Nicholas as a humanitarian, who cared for the needy and especially children.
Celebrating St. Nick in Most Other Countries of Europe
The Day of St Nicholas is celebrated all over Europe. The customs are similar, with slight differences. On December 6th, his Feast Day, his memory is kept alive in most places by stories shared about his goodness and generosity.
Since St. Nick is the patron saint of sailors and seamen, in countries on the sea-coast he comes on ships. In the Netherlands and in Belgium he arrives on a steamship from Spain. He then rides a horse to the houses of children to give them the gifts.
Children in most of Europe clean their boots and put them out by the door for St Nicholas to fill them with presents. Gifts usually consist of fruits, nuts and chocolates, sometimes a small toy that fits in the shoe. Dutch children leave carrots and hay for St Nick’s horse in exchange for the gifts.
In some countries, like Austria, Krampus, the antithesis go St Nick is added to the mix. He accompanies St Nick and leaves sticks to beat up the naughty kids with.
Are you visiting England this time of the year? Watch the parade of the Canterbury Cathedral on December 6th. It goes through the city and ends at the cathedral, where the festivities include music and dance.
In Germany, people clean their house and polish the shoes on the 5th, in honor of St Nick’s visit during the night. Children leave their shoes out, with carrots and hay for the horses, hoping for treats.
In Stuttgart, Germany, kids have their own tradition. If you visit the city during this time, you might think it’s Halloween, where everyone’s costume is the same. The kids dress up as St Nick, walking and walk from house to house, asking for candy.
Celebrating Mikulás Day in Hungary and Romania
Growing up in a Hungarian household in Transylvania (Romania today), I always celebrated Mikulás Day. We used to clean our boots and put them out by the door on the night of December 5th. When we woke up the morning, on the 6th, we found some goodies in them, along with some silver tree branches.
The goodies included oranges, walnuts, chocolate, or other candy treats. The silver painted tree branches were for naughty children. They were a tool for their parents to punish them when they misbehaved. Of course, since each child is both naughty and nice at different times, we all got both. It was all symbolic, of course, no one actually got beaten up with the stick.
In Hungary St Miklos or Mikulás visits preschools and kindergartens. He takes part of a celebration in his honor. Children sing Mikulás songs and might recite poems as well. Mikulás talk to them and may stay in the classroom to watch a movie with the children.
Sfintu Nicolae in Romania
In Romania, the day is celebrated in a similar manner. Children and adults alike shine their boots and put them out on the night of December 5th. On the morning of the 6th, they find gifts in them. Since Romanians are Orthodox, they celebrate him as a saint as well. On the 6th, people give gifts to friends, and to those in need, in his honor.
Back to the Here and Now
I brought the idea of Mikulás with me to Arizona.
My children always cleaned and put their shoes out by the door on the night of December 5th. I used to fill their little shoes with candy and Santa-figured chocolates, besides a small toy. It had to fit in the shoes, that was the trick.
I didn’t bother with the silver-colored stick. Mikulás is a good guy who didn’t care about punishing naughty children. Since he is an addition to Santa in our household, he had to be different.
Because none of their preschool or school friends celebrated Mikulás or St Nick on December 6th, my kids felt special. They decided that he only visited Hungarian children, no matter where in the world they lived. Since mine are half Hungarian, they qualified. Once my daughter told me that she always imagined Mikulás to be a skinnier version of Santa. I asked her why, but she couldn’t remember.
As they got older, the toys got replaced by ITunes gift cards for the older ones. They kept the tradition alive for their youngest sister. Now, they all know that “mom, you were Mikulás.” But they still expect – and get – something small in their shoes tonight. My 12-year old daughter asked me for a fish, since hers died a few days ago (he was very old – the fish, I mean). So, she said, “put the new fish in a small bowl in my shoe, mom.”
A fish can’t be a present from St Nick though. But we are all looking forward to eating chocolates. He always brings some for the parents, too. After all, we deserve some treats for allowing him to visit our house.
Happy St. Nicholas Day to those who celebrate him!
For others, thanks for reading, and Happy December!