St. Nicholas Day owes its name to the holy bishop of Myra, who was born in Lycia (in the southwest of Antalya, today’s Turkey) in the third century and was given the name" Nicholas" was baptized. The name comes from the Greek and means something like "victory of the people".
St. Nicholas: a merciful bishop
After St. Nicholas was ordained a priest in his homeland at the age of 19, he was drawn to the city of Myra, also a city in modern-day Turkey. There, in the year 325 n. Chr. ordained a bishop and thus become the bishop of Myra.
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According to stories, the bishop lived up to his name and always acted mercifully and unselfishly. Thus, he is said to have donated the considerable fortune he inherited from his wealthy parents entirely to the poor.
The 6. December is generally regarded as the anniversary of the death of St. Nicholas. This day is celebrated in memory of his good deeds. This is also the origin of the holiday.
Saint Nicholas as savior and gift-giver
Many legends and myths revolve around the Bishop of Myra. Of particular importance for today’s tradition of celebrating the feast day is the legendary story of a very poor man: he lacked the money to marry his three daughters, so he wanted to send them into prostitution. When St. Nicholas heard about it, he threw gold into the chimney of the girls. This found itself in their boots and socks hanging there to dry. Here’s how he saved the girls from their fate.
Thus the custom and tradition has been based on the legend of the three virgins. Since then, St. Nicholas is said to come down the chimney every year on the day of his death and give presents to children who have been good and well-behaved. He puts the gifts in the boots, shoes or socks, which are hung on the fireplace.
Often he is there accompanied by fearsome assistants. While St. Nicholas is portrayed as the kind-hearted gift-giver, the job of his mean helpers, including Knecht Ruprecht , is to punish spoiled and naughty children.
The relics of St. Nicholas
The ruins of an early medieval basilica on the outskirts of the small town of Demre still recall the first tomb of Bishop Nicholas. However, the body of the saint is no longer in the sarcophagus, which has been broken open at the side and is empty.
In 1087, his bones are said to have been brought to Bari in Italy. A good five dozen Italian sailors and merchants are said to have landed on the coast off Myra with three ships and entered the nearly deserted town. There they robbed the skeleton and brought it unhindered to their home town.
The remains are still in the Basilica of San Nicola in Bari in southern Italy as a relic venerated by Catholics and Orthodox Christians.
St. Nicholas customs in other countries
Although St. Nicholas Day is not a public holiday in Germany, it is one of the most important traditions not only in Germany but all over the world. Especially in countries like Russia, Croatia or Serbia, Saint Nicholas of Myra is seen as a patron saint and one of the most popular saints. Around the world, the day is interpreted differently – here are some examples:
Especially in Austria, the Krampus – a frightening figure – is also the focus of attention along with St. Nicholas. Entire Krampus parades are organized as a St. Nicholas tradition in towns and villages.
In Luxembourg, Santa Claus Day is even a school holiday. There, the so-called Klees’chen is officially received: In some places he arrives by boat or is greeted by the mayor. The children do not only put the boots in front of the door but also a plate with cookies on the table for the Klees’chen.
St. Nicholas Day on 6. December is now becoming more popular in the USA for consumer reasons. Traditionally, however, Santa Claus brings gifts only on Christmas Day and represents the German Santa Claus. This custom dates back to Dutch immigrants, for whom Santa Claus is in turn called Sinterklaas. Sinterklaas traditionally goes back to Nicholas of Myra.
Although St. Nicholas of Myra originated in what is now Turkey, Demre, then Myra, has only become a pilgrimage town since about 1950. Even there St. Nicholas does not bring on the 6. December the gifts. Noel Baba comes on New Year’s Eve.
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For Russia, St. Nicholas is an important patron saint of the country. However, here Djed Moros, i.e. Father Frost, brings the presents. This one comes from a fairy tale and looks very similar to St. Nicholas. Djed Moros is accompanied by his granddaughter Snjegurochka (Snowflake). On the so-called Jolkafest on New Year’s Eve, the children call three times for Father Frost in front of the Christmas tree and are then given presents.
Saint Nicholas is honored with a large mass in the pilgrimage town of Saint-Nicolas-de-Port in Lorraine. The traditional parade ends in front of the pilgrimage church. After mass, visitors sing with candles in their hands.