Celebrating St. Nicholas Day: the historical Santa Claus
A few years ago, we added St. Nicholas Day to our repertoire. What? That’s crazy-talk, adding one more thing to do during the busiest time of the year. I know—but hear me out.
We added this simple observance for a few reasons:
1. As a family, we want to be more mindful of the worldwide Church and its holidays.
2. We want separation between the Man in Red and the birth of Christ. More on this in a bit.
3. Saint Nicholas was from modern-day Turkey, and since our family’s personal history involves Turkey, it’s a fun way to observe that significant part of our life.
4. He was a great guy—a saint, actually—and we’re all about honoring great people in history.
St. Nicholas Day is December 6, and it’s easy to keep it super simple. Here’s a brief history of Nicholas, and how you can add St. Nick’s Day to your repertoire without it being One More Thing.
Who was Nicholas?
Nicholas was born in the third century in the village of Patara, in modern-day southern Turkey (the area was Greek at the time). His parents were wealthy but they died while he was still young. Nicholas spent his inheritance helping the sick and poor in his village, and eventually, he was made bishop of his area (called Myra).
He lived during the reign of Roman emperor Diocletian, known for his persecution of Christians. Nicholas was imprisoned and exiled at some point of his service, and he was also present at the Council of Nicaea, where he signed the Nicene Creed.
The most famous legend of Nicholas’ service involves three poor sisters who had no dowry, which meant they were unable to marry (and in fact, would possibly be sold in to slavery, as was the custom in those days). One morning, the family woke to three bags of gold mysteriously waiting for them in their home, allowing the girls to marry. Nicholas had tossed the bags of gold into their window at night, so as to remain anonymous (and the legend says they even landed in socks drying by the fireplace).
Another legend says when a ship full of wheat made port in his town, he asked the sailors to give half their stash so he could feed the poor, promising they’d still have the same amount in their stock. They shared, and as the story goes, the sailors still had the same amount of wheat in their ship by the time they made port in Constantinople.
St. Nicholas Center has many more of the legends involving the bishop. Overall, he was known for his generosity in the name of Christ by sharing his wealth among those he served, among those who needed it most.
Why we celebrate St. Nicholas Day
As I get older (and more specifically, once we were confirmed Anglican), I’ve grown to love Advent, and not just Christmas. The four weeks reflecting on the anticipation of Christ’s birth are as enjoyable as Christmas itself. Adding a day to honor Nicholas on December 6, during Advent season, adds to the anticipation.
I love teaching my kids about the real, historical Nicholas, and why he’s a symbol of generosity during Christmastide. Learning about his life also helps explain the whole What-does-Santa-have-to-do-with-Jesus? questions. He was a Christian, and loved giving in the name of Christ. We, too, do this on Christmas.
And by setting aside a special day to celebrate St. Nicholas, he’s not really a thing on December 25. I’m all about grace regarding the “Santa issue,” and I don’t want to get into that here—I grew up believing in Santa, and I’m a sane, trusting adult today. But I feel like by adding St. Nicholas Day, we can enjoy both, with watering neither one down.
How we celebrate St. Nicholas Day
The evening of December 5, our kids leave their shoes outside the front door (or if we’re somewhere super cold, we leave them indoors by the door). We’ll then read a book about the historical St. Nicholas for story time before bed.
In the morning, the kids will find a small fabric bag inside their shoes (with a few chocolate coins wrapped in gold foil. Then we’ll talk about the generosity of St. Nick, and how he reminds us to focus on the needs of others, and to give without a need for recognition.
Then as a family, we like to give a few dollars anonymously on December 6. Some years, we’ve called our church office and gotten the name of a family who could use a little extra cash, then put a twenty in their mailbox with a typed note saying we love them and are thinking of them.
Other years, we go out to eat and leave a generous tip for our server. Sometimes, we browse the Compassion catalog and choose something together to give as a family.
All this is a simple, tangible reminder about the real, historical “Santa”—and how he really was generous, kind, and someone to emulate.
The St. Nicholas Center has more ideas than you could ever need. They’ve divided up ideas for celebrating at home, church, and school, and they also explore all the ways different countries celebrate the day (it’s much more popular outside North America).
What’s in the Bible? has a great video explaining the history behind several of our Christmas traditions, such as why it’s called Christmas, why we do Christmas trees, and how St. Nicholas became part of our Christmas celebrations. We all love it.
They’ve also got a collection of short video clips you can stream. These two are especially helpful on the topic of St. Nick:
Our favorite books:
• The True Saint Nicholas, by William J. Bennett, is a fantastic book. Chapters one through three are a great read-aloud for snuggling on the couch as a family and learning about the historical St. Nick in story format.
• We also love Saint Nicholas and the Nine Gold Coins.
Recommendations from the AoS community:
- The Legend of Saint Nicholas
- A St. Nicholas Story: The Fiercest Little Animal in the Forest
- The Miracle of Saint Nicholas
- The Baker’s Dozen: A Saint Nicholas Tale
And finally, if you read Story of the World with your kids, there’s a bit about St. Nicholas in volume 2, chapter 4, pages 55-57.
If it’s almost St. Nick’s Day, and you feel unprepared yet you’d still like to add it to your repertoire, simply do it another day during Advent! Yes, the global Church recognizes Nick on December 6, but there’s no harm in doing it another day (It’s December 19 on the Julian calendar).
Simply write down the holiday on December 6 on next year’s calendar, so you can enjoy and be in tandem with the worldwide Church for future Advent seasons.
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