st. nicholas catholic feast day traditions explained
How have we come this far without a St. Nicholas post? This is a time-honored feast day in the Church and in my home so I feel happy to be able to share it with you. Although it's not hard to find a list of things to do for this feast day I wanted to add another layer of meaning by sharing where these traditions come from and why we do them. Many are also seeking to find a balance between St. Nicholas and Santa Claus traditions, I'll get into that too. I'm grateful to have been able to receive this tradition from my in-laws, who gifted me with my first shoe gift at 23 years old and I've been smitten with this feast day ever since. In fact I don't know many adults that do this tradition and I'd like to say that you should most certainly start. Whether you have children or not I think we could all stand to cultivate a spirit of giving and generosity within our hearts, homes, and communities and this is a great opportunity to begin. Besides, the liturgical year is heaping with extraordinary moments of joy that are just waiting to pull you out of your mundane and ordinary life, and who doesn't want to find a small gift in their shoe? 😊
The Legend of St. Nicholas
All the stockings were hung by the chimney with care, in hopes that St. Nicholas soon would be there. The tradition of putting a gift in someone’s shoe on December 6th has its roots in the story of St. Nicholas. St. Nicholas was the Bishop of Myra in the Roman Empire at the end of the 3rd Century. He is famous for helping an impoverished family by secretly dropping bags of gold coins into their house under cover of night, thereby providing the father with dowry for each of his three daughters and saving them from a life of prostitution. With this story in mind, St. Nicholas was named the patron of the unmarried. This was just one of his many acts of goodwill and charity towards the poor, especially poor children. It is said that when he would toss little pouches of coins through the windows of the poor that sometimes they would land in stockings that had been washed and were hung on the windowsill to dry.
The Shoe Tradition Origin Story
In the Netherlands and Dutch communities, the custom of leaving gifts in the shoes of family-members on the feast of St. Nicholas has been practiced for over 700 years. They call him Sinterklaas, which means St. Nicholas, and his story carried on from generation to generation through families that sought to imitate this saint in their homes. Children would put their clogs by the window and leave a carrot for the saint’s horse with hopes that he would stop by and leave them candy, a trinket, or a riddle. Parents would then place little gifts in their children’s shoes on the eve of St. Nicholas’ feast day and the following day, December 6th, the children would wake up to find these special treats and would know that Sinterklaas had come by to visit.
The Tradition in America
The tradition that most American families follow is to place chocolate gold coins, oranges, and small religious gifts in the shoes of their children or loved ones. The gold coins remind us of the financial gift that St. Nicholas made to families in need. The tradition of gifting oranges came from a couple of interpretations. The first being that oranges used to be more challenging to obtain, not like now where grocery stores are always stocked full of them. To receive an orange was a real treat, and something to be delighted in. Secondly, in many depictions and icons of St. Nicholas, the gold coin pouches share a similar resemblance to an orange. As people tried to emulate what they saw in these images, oranges became a natural offering. In fact, many parishes will even offer a special blessing of oranges before the upcoming feast of St. Nicholas.
St. Nicholas Baking
Some may wonder where the tradition of baking comes from on this feast day and again it goes back to the Netherlands, Belgium, and many German communities who customarily made Sinterklaas cookies, a treat made on St. Nicholas Day, which is also known as speculaas. These are spiced shortbread cookies typically made with springerle molds, carved wooden boards or rolling pins, and enjoyed after everyone has opened the treats from their shoes. Many will continue this tradition in their homes by baking the traditional speculaas cookie or other cookies and treats that their households will enjoy.
St. Nicholas or Santa Claus, Which Should I Do?
Whether or not you carry on the story and whimsy of Santa Claus is up to you and your own families discernment. I was personally given the tradition of Santa Claus in my home and enjoyed every bit of it as a child. I love happy tales and opportunities for imagination, so I look back on these treasured memories with a sense of fondness. We baked cookies for Santa, and we would put out reindeer food in the front yard, and wrote our little lists of things we saw in toy catalogs. I miss toy catalogs.
On the other hand, I've met people who say that if you tell your children that Santa Claus exists then you're a liar and your creating a distrustful relationship with your children. This to me is not a matter of faith and morals, so to each their own.
Blending Both Traditions: St. Nicholas and Santa Claus
However, if you are Catholic then I believe that St. Nicholas, his story, and his virtue should be taught and continued on proudly. It is possible to do both! Unlike myself I only had the tradition of Santa Claus, my husband had the tradition of both St. Nicholas and Santa Claus in his realm of childhood and adult experience and neither St. Nicholas' feast day nor the fantasy of Santa Claus were disrupted. If anything it seems to have added more joy and opportunities of giving to the season. For the feast of St. Nicholas' his family would put out their shoes, bake shortbread biscuits in the shape of stockings, and would learn about the saint. During the Advent season in preparation for Christmas they would write letters to Father Christmas in honor of Tolkien's "Letters from Father Christmas." These letters would hold their seasonal sentiments and a list of what they wanted Santa to bring to them. The integration of tradition, family, and literature here is really lovely and just speaks to the fact that you can do these things intentionally and in a way that is enriching for the whole family!
Whether it be leaving a gift in a friend or loved one’s shoe, or making speculaas cookies, there is a place for everyone in the traditions surrounding St. Nicholas if you only allow yourself the time and wonder to join in. Although the legend and customs of Sinterklaas have evolved over time and transformed into the widely recognized figure of Santa Claus, it's important to remember that the origins of this celebration trace back to Catholic liturgical culture and tradition. Take ownership of this feast day, embrace the practices meaningfully, and extend festivity to the world around you.