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Monday, December 6, 2010

Saint Nicholas Day

Is it strange to institute a new family holiday you never celebrated as a child?

We have just done this, to great success and delight, with the Saint Nicholas Day celebration of German and really, European tradition.

Festivals and celebrations are so magical for little people. Why not have more of them, you know? There is such a build up to Christmas and in one short day it is over, I would rather stretch it out and have celebrations the whole month! Also, engaging in these kinds of celebrations throughout the month (we also do an advent wreath and lighting of candles, along with a song we learned as children) and the year connects us to the seasons and the rhythm of the year in a special way.

Our other thought was that my side of the family has a lot of little traditions that we have carried over honoring the Swedish/Scandinavian side of the family this time of year, not so much with dada’s German heritage.

And who doesn’t like a boot filled with chocolate? I can get into that.

First a word on Saint Nicholas.

He was real. And a good man. Much like Mother Theresa of our day he was already called a saint in his lifetime. He was born in 280 and his see was on the Mediterranean coast, the city of Myra, in present-day Turkey.

“The best-known story involves a man with three unmarried daughters, and not enough money to provide them with suitable dowries. This meant that they could not marry, and were likely to end up as prostitutes. Nicholas walked by the man's house on three successive nights, and each time threw a bag of gold in through a window (or, when the story came to be told in colder climates, down the chimney). Thus, the daughters were saved from a life of shame, and all got married and lived happily ever after.”

In A.D. 303, the Roman Emperor Diocletian ordered a brutal persecution of all Christians. Nicholas was imprisoned. But, when he was finally released, the iron doors swung open and Bishop Nicholas walked out, freed by decree of the new Emperor Constantine. As he entered his city once more, his people flocked about him. "Nicholas! Confessor!" they shouted. "Saint Nicholas has come home." He was bishop, serving people, for another 30 years until his death on December 6, 343 AD, beloved by his congregation and known throughout the region. He was never formally canonized by the church but is nevertheless regarded as a saint - the patron saint of children, sailors, travelers, innocent prisoners and other victims.

(links for more history here)

So there is a bit of who he was.

See the obvious Santa Claus progression? Saint Nicholas is Sankt Niklaus in German or Sinterklaas in Dutch. Apparently in the early 1800s Christmas wasn’t about children and family time but about drinking and other unwanted rowdiness. A poem was published in 1823, maybe you have heard of it, “Twas the Night Before Christmas and all through the house…” Over the next few years the image of the jolly elf giving presents to children emerged and there you have it. Santa Claus.

So why celebrate Saint Nicholas day then? Isn’t it just like Christmas twice?

Well, as an article on the transformation of Saint Nicholas to Santa Claus concludes on the St. Nicholas Center website concludes:

“There is growing interest in reclaiming the original saint in the United States to help restore a spiritual dimension to this festive time. For indeed, St. Nicholas, lover of the poor and patron saint of children, is a model of how Christians are meant to live. A bishop, Nicholas put Jesus Christ at the center of his life, his ministry, his entire existence. Families, churches, and schools are embracing true St Nicholas traditions as one way to claim the true center of Christmas—the birth of Jesus. Such a focus helps restore balance to increasingly materialistic and stress-filled.”

That I can definitely get into.

we did it!
So. Last night the children wrote letters to Saint Nicholas, to carry with him back up to the Christ-child, and left out carrots for his faithful donkey and a few cookies (little man insisted) as well as a beer “in case he is thirsty” (and he did appreciate it, during the long stressful football game HA HA) Then we left our boots outside, along with the goodies, and sprinkled magic dust (grain for the birds) around them to show Saint Nicholas that children live here.

And we read the below stories, some of the best from that website I mentioned, and talked about who Saint Nicholas was. And this morning we woke up - to much excitement - over an apple, toffee, M&Ms and fruit snacks tucked in little boots as well as new packages of markers for each (which are now all over baby dears arms, legs, and pajamas). And little man noted with pleasure that the carrots were eaten and the beer can was empty - Saint Nicholas was indeed thirsty!

This website has a lot of great resources on celebrating the day including stories, activiites, traditional dishes (we opted for a pre-made Ikea feast of meatballs, lingonberry sauce and various salted fish and cheese. Yum. Cant wait for dinner! Although, eh, Swedish, German, close enough right?)

Here is
one of the stories we liked best.
Once upon a time there lived far away in the East a pious man, the Bishop Nicholas. One day he heard that far in the West was a big town. In this town all the people had to suffer hunger, the children also. Then Bishop Nicholas called his servants who loved him and said to them 'Bring me the fruits of your gardens and the fruits of your fields that we can still the hunger of the children in that town.' The servants brought baskets full of apples and nuts, and on top lay honey cakes which the women had baked. And the men brought sacks of wheat. Bishop Nicholas had all these things taken onto a ship. It was a beautiful ship, quite white and the sails of the ship were as blue as the sky and as blue as the mantle of the Bishop Nicholas. The wind blew into the sails and sped the ship along, And when the wind grew tired the servants took to the oars and rowed the ship westward. They had to sail for a longtime; for seven days and seven nights.
When they arrived in front of the big town it was evening. The roads were empty, but in the houses there burnt lights. Bishop Nicholas knocked at a window. The mother in the house thought a late wanderer had come and she asked her child to open the door. Nobody was outside. The child ran to the window. There was nobody outside the window either. But instead, there stood a basket filled with apples and nuts, red and yellow, and a honey cake lay on top. By the basket stood a sack which was bursting with golden wheat grains. All the people ate the gifts and once again became healthy and happy.
Today St. Nicholas is in the heavens. Every year on his birthday he starts on his journey down to the earth. He asks for his white horse and journeys from star to star. There he meets Mother Mary, who gathers silver and golden threads for the shift of the Christ Child. Mother Mary says to him: "Dear St. Nicholas please go again to the children and bring them your gifts. Tell them, 'Christmas is nigh and soon the Christ Child will come.'"
The earth is wide and great. There, where St. Nicholas cannot go himself, he asks a good and pious person to go to the children and take them apples and nuts and tell the children of the coming of the Christ Child. 

The following is another nice, sweet story. I love the imagery of this one. Little man especially loved it too.
Once St. Nicholas rode across the clouds from a country where the sun rises in the morning to a country where the sun says goodnight in the evening. Up in the heavens he met Mother Mary who was carrying the Christ Child in her arms and Mother Mary said to St. Nicholas: "Once again it is time that I take the Child down to earth for a while so that he can play with the children." When she had said this, many little stars came along from all sides of the heavens and asked whether they could go with them down to the earth.
"Yes," said Mother Mary, "but only if the moon will show you the way, for I cannot carry you all under my cloak."
When St. Nicholas heard this he rode off to the moon: "Good evening, dear Moon."
"Good evening, St. Nicholas."
"Dear Moon, will you please show these little stars the way to the earth."
"Yes, willingly, if the sun comes along too."
St. Nicholas rode to the sun. "Good morning, dear Sun."
"Good morning, St. Nicholas."
"Dear Sun, will you please help to take these little stars down to the earth?"
"What do they want to do there?"
"They want to play with the Child of Light and the children of the earth."
"That is how it should be," said the Sun.
And now the sun placed himself on one side of Mother Mary and the moon on her other side. The moon took the little stars in her lap, and the sun held the hand of the Child of Light who was sitting in his mother's arms. Thus they went together down to the earth, but St. Nicholas rode on in front of them. He rode so fast across the clouds that he arrived on the earth much earlier than the others. On earth he went from house to house and told everyone that the Child of Light would soon arrive, and he gave the children on the earth presents so that they could play with the Child of Light.
Then the Child of Light arrived on the earth accompanied by sun and moon. He jumped out of Mother Mary's arms and showed the little stars the path to the children on the earth, but when the little stars leapt out of the lap of the moon onto the earth, they had all become human children and played with the Child of Light and the other children on the earth. It was a happy game, for the children of the earth play more beautifully and happily when the Child of Light plays with them. Mother Mary looked on and smiled.
Many stars who had become children of the earth stayed with the human children; and when Mother Mary took the Child of Light back into the heavens, many children of the earth were allowed to go with her and the Child of Light, to live with the stars.
So, go, celebrate. Eat chocolate. Think about giving and love and life. Happy Saint Nicholas Day!


  1. so cute! and little man really was so excited this morning. "look Cari I got M+M's!!!" oh to be a kid again and not even entertain the thought that mama and dada filled the boots.


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