In some cultures and faiths, St. Nicholas visits well before Christmas. When I was growing up in Holland, this day, called "Sinterklaas" in Dutch, was a pretty big deal.
Sinterklaas (AKA Santa) came from Spain in a steamboat. Once he landed on our shore, he rode a white horse. Besides that, he looked pretty much the same as the American Santa.
Oh, except for the pope-like hat.
We would have big parades, and Santa and his helpers, characters known as Zwarte Piet, which I'm just not going to get into, would throw candy out to the crowd. One such candy was called a "pepernoot," a small, round gingerbread-ish cookie. The distinct flavors of clove, cinnamon and anise make this a very memorable holiday treat.
The evening before, all the kids would set out our shoes. The bigger the better, because Sinterklaas would fill it with all kinds of stuff, like chocolate, an orange, and small toys. We would sing traditional songs, like:
Gooi wat in mijn schoentje,
Breng wat in mijn laarsje,
Dank je Sinterklaasje
Which, roughly translated, means, Sinterklaas (I have no idea what kapoentje means), throw something in my shoe, bring something to my boot, thank you Sinterklaas.
Who was St. Nick?
St. Nicholas was born in 280 AD in Asia Minor. His parents died when he was young, leaving him great wealth. The saint was known for doing good deeds and sharing his wealth, such as anonymously delivering sacks of gold to those in need in the dark of night. He is recognized as a saint in many Catholic and Christian churches.
The American Santa Claus, or Old Saint Nick, was derived from the actual St. Nicholas.
How to celebrate the Feast of St. Nicholas
The day is celebrated widely in some countries.
In Germany, children put out boots, or Nikolaus-Stiefel, outside on the eve of the Feast Day in hopes that the saint will leave them treats or goodies.
In the Alsace region of France, for example, a little donkey carries baskets of goodies for children through towns and villages. Special treats are baked and shared, including gingerbread biscuits and a brioche shaped like the saint.
In Italy, a San Nicola festival commemorates the arrival of St. Nicholas' remains in the town of Bari in 1087. It is a day of festivals and gift giving. Also, because he is the patron saint of women wishing to be married, some young women leave notes and coins for the saint in the basillica there.
Many American families celebrate a version of this day, too. Some follow their nationality's traditions. Others simply set out a shoe or a sock for the saint to fill on the eve, so the next morning their children awake to find small gifts and treats. (This writer's family sometimes got oranges, symbolizing the bags of gold coins St. Nicholas would give away.)
How does your family celebrate the feast? What nontraditional traditions do you honor? Share yours in comments!