He is one of the most popular and best-known saints in the Church: Nicholas of Myra. But who was Bishop Nicholas? How did the customs for his feast day on December 6 come about? And how is St. Nicholas celebrated in other countries? Find out all about the history and significance of St. Nicholas, who is said to have worked miracles during his lifetime, in this article.
Who was St. Nicholas?
Why do we celebrate St. Nicholas (Greek: “victor of the people”)?
The life of Nicholas of Myra
The better-known person, Nicholas of Myra, has only a few established historical facts about his life and deeds. By the time his life was written down, he had long since died, so his life became mixed up with another man named Nicholas, who lived in the 6th century. What is certain is that he was born between 270 and 286 AD in Patara (now Turkey), which was part of the Roman Empire. He was ordained a priest at a young age and was soon appointed Bishop of Myra in the Lycia region. According to tradition, Nicholas was imprisoned and tortured during the persecution of Christians. He is also said to have taken part in the first ecumenical council in church history, the Council of Nicaea, in 325.
Nicholas died on December 6, between 345 and 365 A.D. The day of his death was named after him to commemorate his good deeds. Nicholas of Myra is said to have been buried in the church of St. Nicholas in Demre. In 1087, Italian sailors brought his mortal remains to Bari, Italy. His relic in the Cathedral of St. Nicholas is venerated by Catholics and Orthodox alike.
Legends about St. Nicholas
There are numerous legends and myths surrounding St. Nicholas and his deeds, which are the reason for his popularity and importance. All St. Nicholas stories have one thing in common: they convey the image of a kind and helpful person who alleviated people’s hardships with his miraculous work.
The donation of gifts
According to one of the best-known legends, St. Nicholas helped a poor man and his daughters. As the man was unable to marry off his three daughters in a proper manner due to a lack of dowry, he wanted to turn them into prostitutes. St. Nicholas then brought the three virgins gold nuggets every night until they had enough money for a wedding.
Calming the storm at sea
St. Nicholas once rescued sailors from a sea storm. In their fear of death, they called on St. Nicholas. A man with superhuman strength then appeared on board, took the helm, set the sails correctly, calmed the storm, and brought the ship safely into port. In gratitude for their rescue from extreme distress, the sailors prayed in the church of Myra, where they recognized their savior and thanked him. Because of this story, St. Nicholas is still considered the patron saint of sailors today.
The grain miracle
When there was a famine in Nicholas’ hometown due to a drought, a fully loaded ship suddenly passed by on its way to the emperor in Rome. As the captain did not want to give any of the grain to the starving people, Nicholas spoke to him. He persuaded him to donate grain to the starving inhabitants of Myra. Thanks to a prayer from St. Nicholas, the ship miraculously found that none of its cargo was missing at its destination, despite the generous gift.
The cult of St. Nicholas
St. Nicholas is a Christian saint who is the patron saint of many countries (including Russia and Croatia), professions (including sailors, tailors, bakers, weavers, butchers, notaries, and lawyers), and children. And not without reason: St. Nicholas exemplified timeless values such as charity, kindness, mercy, honesty, energy, and helpfulness. His veneration began around 200 years after he died in Greece and then reached the Slavic countries. In Russia, only Mary, the mother of Jesus, is venerated more than St. Nicholas.
Representation of St. Nicholas
St. Nicholas is traditionally depicted in the Latin Church wearing the robes of a Catholic bishop, complete with a miter, crozier, and long bishop’s cloak. He usually appears with a red and white habit, but in some areas, he is also depicted in gold and white. Occasionally, St. Nicholas is also depicted with three golden balls or three golden apples as attributes. The Eastern Church depicts St. Nicholas in a bishop’s habit, with a gospel book and a gesture of teaching or blessing.
What are the traditions surrounding St. Nicholas Day?
Although St. Nicholas Day is not a public holiday in Germany, Austria, or Switzerland, it is nevertheless very important as a Christian day of remembrance and an integral part of pre-Christmas customs. On this day, all men with the name Nicholas or the short form Klaus also celebrate their name day.
St. Nicholas as a gift bringer: the use of boots or inlays
The custom of placing a boot or shoes in front of the door on the eve of December 6, which is widespread throughout the German-speaking Alpine region, is derived from the custom of “Schiffchensetzens”. “Schiffchensetzen” is the name given to the tradition, known since the 15th century, of making St. Nicholas boats out of paper for the saint to place his presents in. The boats were later replaced by boots or stockings, which are placed outside the door on St. Nicholas Eve and filled with sweets overnight. The custom is based on the legend of the three virgins, to whom St. Nicholas is said to have given presents during the night.
St. Nicholas brings nuts, mandarins, and apples on St. Nicholas Day.
The Reformation, led by Martin Luther, rejected the veneration of saints and the giving of gifts to St. Nicholas as a “childish thing.”. He tried to replace gift-giving on December 6 with the Christ Child on December 25. Since then, gift-giving has been moved to Christmas in many countries. Originally, St. Nicholas Day—not Christmas as the feast of the birth of Jesus—was the day of the great gift-giving; in some countries, it still is today, for example, in the Netherlands.
It was not until several centuries later that Catholic circles also adopted the Christ Child.
In addition to this custom, some families still have the “custom of returning home.”. A person dressed as St. Nicholas comes to visit and brings small gifts such as mandarins, gingerbread, walnuts, and the like.
St. Nicholas and his companion
From the 17th century onwards, the good-natured St. Nicholas was given a companion who had a different name depending on the region: Knecht Ruprecht, Krampus, Pelzmärtl, Sünnerklas, Klaubauf or Hans Muff. Originally, he was a figure to frighten children and teach them to be more pious. According to another theory, St. Nicholas’s companion can be traced back to pagan rituals: He would be out and about in winter to drive away evil spirits. Over time, Knecht Ruprecht went from being a punisher to being Santa’s helper, carrying presents in a sack.
Santa Claus – the rival to St. Nicholas
Even though they can almost be mistaken for each other with their red coat, white beard, and jute sack full of presents, Santa Claus and St. Nicholas have nothing to do with each other. The fact that the religious roots and significance of St. Nicholas are increasingly being forgotten is also due to the figure of Santa Claus, which the advertising industry has brought to the fore. Many people therefore think that the bearded old man with the bobble hat is Santa Claus. Dutch emigrants brought their Sinterklaas custom to America in the 17th century. Over time, Sinterklaas eventually became the American St. Nicholas, aka Santa Claus, who initially had many different faces.
Santa Claus only has external similarities with St. Nicholas.
Santa Claus, who is present in the media today, goes back to Haddon Sundblom, who was commissioned by a well-known soft drink manufacturer in 1931 to invent a charismatic figure for their advertising. Since then, Santa Claus has gone on to win worldwide. Santa Claus still has an important message to share with us today: that of unselfish charity and a willingness to help other people.
The Klausen tree
The custom of the so-called Klausen tree has been known throughout Central Europe since the 15th century. Although its name refers to St. Nicholas, it decorates the living room throughout the pre-Christmas period and, in some places, even replaces the Christmas tree or Advent wreath. It is a pyramid-shaped candlestick frame entwined with fir greenery. At the top, the Klausenbaum is decorated with a candle.
Other St. Nicholas traditions and significance in other countries
It is not only in Germany that the story of St. Nicholas is celebrated. St. Nicholas is also very important in other countries.
One St. Nicholas tradition that is practiced in Switzerland is the Klausjagen on 5. It goes back to a pagan custom in which the evil winter spirits were driven away with a lot of noise.
Perchten in Austria
They look terrifying: Perchten, who are supposed to drive away the winter demons.
The dreaded Krampus and Perchten are up to mischief in Austria. They are supposed to drive the evil spirits out of the towns and restore order. For this reason, Krampus runs are organized around 6 December in various places in Austria, for example in St. Anton am Arlberg. At these events, participants wear spooky masks and a devil’s skin.
In France, St. Nicholas also arrives on December 6 and brings small gifts and sweets. In eastern France in particular, St. Nicholas is accompanied by the “père fouettard”, the French equivalent of Knecht Rupprecht. In the Lorraine region, whose patron saint is St. Nicholas, a relic of the saint is kept in the church of Saint-Nicolas-de-Port, a small town not far from Nancy.
St. Nicholas is called Sinterklaas in the Netherlands. He is the central figure of a festival for children, which is celebrated in the Netherlands on December 5 with food, presents, and songs. The Dutch version of St. Nicholas arrives by steamship from Spain in mid-November for the Sinterklaas festival, where he lives for the rest of the year. Like the “traditional” St. Nicholas, Sinterklaas always has his helpers with him – the zwarte Pieten (black Peter).
Today, many Christians still make a pilgrimage to Demre in Turkey on the anniversary of St. Nicholas’ death to visit his grave. The Turks affectionately call St. Nicholas “Noel Baba” – the father of Christmas.
- Hector Pascua/picture: www.206tours.com
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