saint nicholas postcard

Celebrating St. Nicholas, the real Santa Claus

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About Tsh

Tsh is the founder of this blog and lives in Bend, Oregon with her husband and 3 kids. Her latest book is Notes From a Blue Bike, and believes a passport is one of the world's greatest textbooks.

Last December, 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 decided to add 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 wanted to keep a bit of separation between the Man in Red and the birth of Christ. More on that in a bit.

3. Saint Nicholas was technically from modern-day Turkey, and since our family’s personal history involves Turkey, we thought it’d be fun to observe that significant part of our life.

4. He was actually a great guy, and we’re all about honoring great people in history.

St. Nicholas Day is December 6—tomorrow—so if you want to celebrate it, it’s not too late. It’s easy to keep this super simple! We definitely do.

intellectual grownup

This month’s Intellectual Grownup focus is an obvious choice—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).

st. nicholas

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 even says that they landed in socks that were drying by the fireplace).

Another legend states that when a ship full of wheat made port into his town, he asked the sailors to give half of their stash so that he could feed the poor, promising that they’d still have the same amount in their stock. They shared, and as the story goes, the sailors still had the same quantity 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.

The real St. Nicholas, and simple ideas for celebrating his life

Why we celebrate St. Nicholas Day

As I get older, I’ve grown to really appreciate Advent, and not just Christmas Day. The four weeks leading to our celebration of Christ’s birth are just as enjoyable as the big day itself, in my opinion. Focusing on Nicholas on December 6 only adds to that anticipation.

I love the idea of teaching my kids the real, historical Nicholas, and why he’s such a symbol of generosity during Christmas. Exploring his life also helps explain the whole What-does-Santa-have-to-do-with-Jesus? questions. He was a follower of Christ, and loved giving in His name. We, too, do this on Christmas.

bc comic

And by designating a special day to celebrate St. Nicholas, he doesn’t seem like quite as big a deal 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 just fine today. But I feel like with adding St. Nicholas Day, we can enjoy both, with neither watering the other down.

Side note: there’s nothing in the Bible about how we should celebrate Christmas, because well, Christmas isn’t in the Bible. It’s very, very cultural (I learned this first-hand when we lived in Turkey, watching the local Christians there not really make a big deal out of the day). Families should feel free to do it however they want, in my opinion. Celebrate the birth of Christ, yes! But don’t get worked into a knot about doing it just right. There isn’t one right way.

How we celebrate St. Nicholas Day

The evening of December 5, our kids leave their shoes by the front door (we don’t leave them outdoors here in Oregon, because well, that’s freezing). Then we’ll 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 (or text to, for the tiny-footed people) with a few chocolate coins wrapped in gold foil and a small toy—a Matchbox car or the like. Then we talk about how this reminds us of the generosity of St. Nick, and how he reminds us to consider the needs of others and to give without the need for recognition.

folk art of saint nicholas
Photo source

Then we’re gonna add something new this year—as a family, we’re going to give a few dollars anonymously on December 6. We called our church and got the name of a family who could use a little something extra, so we’re going to put a twenty in their mailbox, with a typed note that says we love them and are thinking of them.

Hopefully this’ll be a tangible reminder to the kids of what the real, historical “Santa” was like—and how he really was generous, kind, and someone we should emulate.

And that’s it! Honestly, we keep it simple.

Resources

The St. Nicholas Center has more ideas than you could imagine. 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).

Haley from Carrots for Michelmas explains why her kids get new shoes on St. Nicholas Day, and she’s also written a book full of recipes for feasts during the Christian calendar—including St. Nick.

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. Our kids love it (and I find myself entranced, too!).

They’ve also got a collection of short video clips you can stream. These two are especially helpful on the topic of St. Nick:

And here are a few good books:

bakers dozen
Photo source

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.

Saint Nicholas: The Real Story of the Christmas Legend is a good picture book (though some of it is historical fiction).

Preston recommends The Legend of Saint Nicholas and A St. Nicholas Story: The Fiercest Little Animal in the Forest. Jen recommends The Miracle of Saint Nicholas (which is set in Russia, so it’s not technically about Nick himself—still a sweet story, though).

My friend Meredith recommends The Baker’s Dozen: A Saint Nicholas Tale—and right now it’s available for Kindle for only a penny!

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. Thanks for the tip, Heidi!

Also, if you feel unprepared to do this tomorrow, but you’d still like to add it to your repertoire, just do it another day this month! Yes, the global Church recognizes Nick on December 6, but there’s no real harm in doing it another day (It’s December 19 on the Julian calendar). No reason to aim for perfection here.

Do you celebrate St. Nicholas Day? What are some of your traditions?

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Comments

  1. avatar
    Tesseliene says:

    St. Nicholas day is the biggest children’s fest in the Netherlands. Dutch children are not raised with Santa Claus, but with Saint Nicholas. (the only we celebrate Christmas is by putting up a tree, eating together and some go to church). Every year goes as follows: Early november, ‘Sinterklaas’ comes by boat from Spain to the Netherlands (this is what all children believe). The event where he comes off the boat and is welcomed by everyone is broadcast on national television. Then from november until december 5th, Dutch kids can put one shoe by the fireplace or by the radiator with a carrot in it for the horse of Sinterklaas. Twice a week, for most of them. The kids have to sing songs for Sinterklaas to show they behave well. They are told that Sinterklaas and his helpers (zwarte Pieten) are walking on the rooftops at night (Sinterklaas on his white horse). Zwarte Piet goes through the chimney and fills the shoes with candy. (This is why zwarte Piet is black, some people think it’s racist). Then on december 5th (not the 6th for us), we have ‘pakjesavond’ (gift evening). Sinterklaas puts a bag with gifts in front of your door. In many families he visits the house in person (when the family hires actors), to meet with the family. Then all the gifts are unwrapped. On december 6th, Sinterklaas goed back to Spain by boat, but this is just what parents are telling their kids, it won’t we on television or anything. So, this is our tradition. It’s not a religious tradition though, people won’t go to church that’s only with Christmas.

  2. avatar
    Tesseliene says:

    We even have a ‘Sinterklaasjounaal’ (news report) for kids on television every day from the moment he arrives until december 5th. Every year, there is a story made up for the kids, like Sinterklaas lost all the packages, the boat has to be fixed or the horse is ill. But all these problems are fixed before december 5th.

  3. St. Nicholas comes to our house tonight. The kids leave their shoes by the fire. In the morning there will be glitter everywhere. The shoes always have a clementine, chocolate coins, and the Lindt chocolate St. Nicholas. Sometimes there will be a tiny little stuffed mouse or something but they don’t expect a gift. Our second decoration comes out–a statue of St. Nicholas. I realized today that next year if the timing is right, I will be sending a pair of shoes or slippers off to college with the coins and clementine. That’s how important this little event has become at our house!
    Sarah´s latest post: Light the Advent Candle One

  4. Hm, I like this series a lot – thanks for the historical background information! One simple truth is missing though: Jesus was not born in December (easy maths), he never told his followers to observe his birth and Christmas and it’s traditions have pagan roots. I’m completely ok if families choose to celebrate whatever they want. Yes, Nicholas was a great man, but Jesus has simply nothing to do with this, neither on the 6th nor on the 24th and this can easily be researched!

  5. I’m pinning this for next year, Tsh. I love the idea of celebrating Saint Nicholas. A really great summary – but oh no – their ain’t no way I can add this to 2013. We are up to our eyebrows in busy-ness!
    Robin from Frugal Family Times´s latest post: Headaches and Sleepless Nights = Our Life Right Now.

  6. Thank you. I despise Santa Claus – how could a supposedly loving and generous being who shares many qualities with God the Father possibly show more favor to rich than poor children? St. Nicholas, and giving money or food to another family in need, is a lovely idea to incorporate St. Nicholas without being dragged down into the Santa myth.
    Rebecca´s latest post: One Quick Tip: Pinkeye (Conjunctivitis) Home Remedy

  7. We do St. Nick too (I always get a kick out of the story of him punching a heretic in the face at a meeting, apparently he was known for his temper). We also do “Santa” stockings at Christmas. For us we don’t mind if our kids want to believe in Santa for awhile while their young, but we like keeping the real person close at hand so that when they know the truth about Santa they can easily replace the fantasy with the real person and understand what inspires us to give gifts at the holiday season.
    Molly´s latest post: 5 Favorites: Getting By With a Little Help For My Friends

  8. We do St. Nick too (I always get a kick out of the story of him punching a heretic in the face at a meeting, apparently he was known for his temper). We also do “Santa” stockings at Christmas. For us we don’t mind if our kids want to believe in Santa for awhile while their young, but we like keeping the real person close at hand so that when they know the truth about Santa they can easily replace the fantasy with the real person and understand what inspires us to give gifts at the holiday season. x
    Molly´s latest post: 5 Favorites: Getting By With a Little Help For My Friends

  9. We tell the story of St. Nicholas and open stockings on St.N day. The kids look forward to it each year.

  10. We’ve been reading Christine Natale’s stories (http://www.stnicholascenter.org/pages/waldorf-1) about St. Nicholas every night since Dec. 1. And oh, my girls can’t wait to put their shoes out tonight! St. Nicholas always leaves chocolate coins, a few whole nuts, a candy cane, a tangerine, and a beautiful new ornament for each child. Sometimes there is a small toy, or a new book to be shared too.

    We also like to give to others on St. Nicholas Day – typically, we “adopt” a child for gift-giving (like Angel Tree) or purchase gifts to donate anonymously to a local charity (like Toys for Tots). My girls are always involved in the shopping and dropping off of these items – they are learning to enjoy giving as much as receiving!
    Liz´s latest post: Garden to Kitchen ~ Tatsoi, Basil & Feta Quiche

  11. I love this, Tsh. I’ve never thought to actually put out shoes for St. Nicholas Day, but I’m totally going to scramble to do this tonight. It should be so much fun!
    Diana@My Humble Kitchen´s latest post: Simple Lives Thursday, #175

  12. My family celebrated St. Nicholas Day when I was a child, and my husband and I celebrate this feast day with our children. We have a special devotion to St. Nicholas, so this day is always much anticipated in our household. We leave out the shoes, have a special breakfast, and go to the daily Mass on Dec. 6. Loved this post – thanks for sharing, Tsh!

  13. My family stopped having Santa Claus come on Christmas Eve and started celebrating the Feast Day of St. Nicholas when I was about 11 years old. So for me, this is totally normal. I find that is takes the pressure off of Christmas day itself, and it automatically cuts out the ‘list of wants’ that is so often a temptation for young children.

    Friday mornings are really busy this year, so we’re going to do our celebration on Saturday morning. We set the table beautifully the night before and serve special breakfast foods. We have stockings for everyone, usually filled with small useful things, chocolate coins and a book. We spend a slow morning enjoying each others company.

    And re: what Rebecca said above about rich kids getting more than poor kids, that is something that we directly address with our children. They get modest gifts year round because we have modest means. They know this. And we explain it by telling them we pray together and ask St. Nicholas to help us to know what Jesus wants us to do as parents and what would be the best way to spend our modest means on a small special present that Christ wants our children to have.

  14. We are going to do this tonight, because my dad grew up in the Netherlands and I think it’s a great way to pass down stories from our ancestors. Our 3 year old is SO excited to put a carrot in her show for the horse of Sinterklaas!

  15. St. Nicholas day is when we do our family gift giving – St. Nick comes on the 6th, Jesus comes on the 25th. We’ll hang stockings tonight, they will receive some treats and some stickers/crafty things/socks in their stockings, and 1 gift each (2nd hand wooden blocks this year…) By doing the gifts early in Advent we can then move on to anticipating the truest gift of Jesus. My kids are quite little – almost 4 and 18mos, but we’re excited to establish this tradition with them! We also follow up with a giving opportunity – this year we’ll be helping to deliver a few Christmas hampers to families in our church. Looking forward to hanging stockings tonight!
    Rachel´s latest post: Just Keep Writing…Right?

  16. I grew up celebrating St Nicholas Day. We do a small tradition with my kids- setting out shoes tonight and small gifts left in the morning. My boys are 3 and 1 so we don’t get a ton into the historical significance.

  17. Thanks so much for this article, Tsh! I look forward to these posts each month and I always feel a little smarter but not overwhelmed with information after reading them.
    I appreciate the cultural history, I had no idea that St. Nicholas was involved in the Nicene Creed or was such a giving person.
    Definitely want to incorporate this into our family’s traditions, thanks for sharing the super simple way you make it meaningful.

  18. We celebrate St. Nicholas Day! The kids get their stockings filled with the same things each year – a new set of pj’s and some little candies and such. They love it!

  19. Years and years and years ago I wrote a (never published) picture book about St. Nicholas, paralleling his gift to these girls and God’s gift to the world.

    For the girls receiving the gold from Nicholas, the refrain read:
    For his was the perfect gift
    at the perfect time
    which saved each girl from a life of misery
    and even from death itself.

    And with the birth of Christ I changed it to:
    For He was the perfect gift
    at the perfect time
    who saved the world from a life of misery
    and even from death itself.

    This little story still makes me happy.
    Caroline Starr Rose´s latest post: On Writing for Children

  20. Oh my gosh! This is so great! I love the idea of incorporating this into the celebrations. It kind of puts into perspective who St. Nick REALLY was. I had always told my kids he gave gifts because he wanted to honor the Savior. But, to share the historical is so much better.
    Lisa´s latest post: Spiritually Preparing for a More Simple Christmas

  21. I love celebrating St. Nicholas day because it feels like the perfect compromise. My kids always wonder why we don’t do Santa (they learned from very early on the truth, we never “did” Santa anyway) and celebrating this is still fun and also doesn’t take anything away from our time of celebrating the birth of Christ. I also love that the kids learn the historical story and reflects back to Jesus in the first place.
    Sarah M
    Sarah M´s latest post: DPP // 3

  22. It’s our first Christmas with our little girl and we’ve been debating whether to add Santa into our celebrations as we’re really trying to keep the focus on Jesus on the 25th. Celebrating St. Nick’s day on the 6th will be a great way to remember this generous saint and in turn prepare ourselves to be generous to others during the advent season. Thank you for all the useful resources.
    Jessica´s latest post: {Be Inspired} Something More by Moving Works

  23. Hi Tsh,
    I really appreciate you sharing your knowledge and thoughts in this post. I grew up celebrating St. Nick’s Day. My mom usually treated us with a special ornament or some other small gift. To be honest, I really didn’t know much about St. Nick other than that he was generous. Last year, I looked more into the history since I had become curious over the years and my son, who was then 3 1/2 years old, could start understanding why we celebrate certain traditions. I really do want my son to grow up learning and understanding the reasons for this holiday season, and continuing to incorporate St. Nicholas Day will be one way we do that.

    I’ll be honest, I am quite surprised by how many people celebrate gift-giving on the 6th after scanning the comments above. I think it’s a great idea and makes total sense, but I grew up recognizing Santa and Jesus on the same day. I have never been around anybody following the gift-giving tradition on the 6th. Something to ponder…

    Thanks for sharing more on this topic.
    Caitlin

  24. avatar
    Patti Morfeld says:

    We do this every year and when my boys were tiny I collected inexpensive storybooks with a Christmas theme and left them for families we played with along with a note explaining the story of the real Saint Nicholas. It’s such a great tradition.

  25. Dear Tsh,
    I appreciate your educating others about world traditions. Better than the education we get from commercialized TV. Saint Nicholas Day (Dec. 6) is the Feast Day of Saint Nicholas which is designated by the Catholic church as the day to honor a saint on the day of their death (maybe their ascension into heaven?)
    Also, would LOVE for you to do a post on the celebration of the Epiphany, Jan.6th. It is celebrated as the day the wise men found and honored baby Jesus. Most Spanish speaking European, Caribbean, and South American countries celebrate the Epiphany more enthusiastically than Christmas day. They call it Three Kings Day. Miami even has a Three Kings Day parade. Children leave their shoes out on Jan.5 and the wise men come and fill them with candy and gifts. Instead of cookies, children leave carrots out for the camels! Thank you for having a world view!!!! I only learned about it as an adult…I had been too commercialized! My husband celebrated it as a child and now my son does, too!

  26. hi, thank you for those info, i know a lot of it since i am from Greece and thank you very much for letting people know that where St. Nicholas is from used to be Greek and is now Turkish. Also thank you so much for writing Constantinople and not Instabul. One last thing, my son’s name is Nicholas and we celebrate his namesday tomorrow, although we do celebrate Santa Claus as well.

  27. Love this post! I specially like how it explains the link between Santa and Jesus and I love your idea to give some money and note anonymously to a family in need.

    Also, your thoughts on enjoying the anticipation Advent brings, reminded me of how in Gretchen Rubin’s four stages of reveling in a moment of happiness, she says that anticipation plays a big part in our joy! http://gretchenrubin.com/happiness_project/2007/04/the_four_stages/

  28. We celebrate St. Nicholas Day on December 6 every year. We tell the story of the real Nicholas, and put up stockings (usually the stockings go up December 1, but we aren’t allowed to touch them until the 6th). We each (even parents!) get some combination of the following: something warm, something wooden, something to eat, and some money.
    Our something warm is traditionally very practical, like pjs, long johns, or socks. The “some money” is usually a gift that cost some money for the parents (we don’t exchange gifts at Christmas), and chocolate money for kids.
    Something wooden can be stretched to be something paper, for instance, or a pencil, etc.
    My little family doesn’t do any gifts on Christmas, but we exchange with extended family on Christmas. I love that St. Nicholas Day is a more intimate family time to celebrate how we like without extended family expectations and pressures. We always talk about how Nicholas did what he did because he loved Jesus, and how we are generous because Jesus was, and asked us to be.
    At Christmas we focus on Jesus and His birth story (and on into His life and death and resurrection), and choose not to buy each other any gifts. It works well for us!
    Thanks for spreading the word on St. Nick!
    Oh, and a tradition we started last year is watching VeggieTales St Nick. Not entirely historical, but very cute and pretty close for little kids! :)

  29. yes, we have since I was little. My mother grew up in Germany. I really like your idea of a little gift and explaining it was because St. Nick was generous. I will be adding that. We always got oranges and nuts and like ONE measly little hershey kiss…hated that! but we put a list in it of what we wanted.

  30. Tsh ~ Does your family celebrate Santa on Christmas or do this instead? My children go to a Waldorf inspired school and St. Nick visits our school every year through 8th grade. We haven’t done Santa in a few years but this tradition I also want to add at home.

    I just got your book Organized Simplicity and I plan on taking it with a highlighter as my beach read on our upcoming cruise :)

    • We’re not anti-Santa, but we also don’t make a big deal out of him, either. We definitely focus more on the birth of Christ on Christmas Day, but we’re okay with Santa decor, songs, etc. As I mentioned in the post, all this is cultural – including celebrating Jesus’ birth on December 25 – so to me it’s not sacrilegious to incorporate Santa as well. But the kids definitely know he’s actually Saint Nick, a real guy from the past.

  31. Big fans of St Nick here ~ one of my kids’ favorite family traditions.
    Love all the information you included!
    Kristin´s latest post: Day 25

  32. I love this series, Tsh. And this was a particularly delightful post. Thank you for the link love ; )
    Haley @ Carrots for Michaelmas´s latest post: This Week’s Miscellany: Vol. 73

  33. I grew up in a strong Dutch culture (both of my mom’s parents were Dutch immigrants) so I grew up hearing the stories of Sinterklaas and wooden shoes filled with treats. Here in Bend we’ve become a part of the Dutch American Club of Central Oregon and will celebrate St. Nicholas day on Sunday with a Sinterklaas party. We’ll bring our wooden shoes filled with carrots for his white horse and Sinterklaas will be there to pass out traditional Dutch candies to the kiddos.

  34. On St. Nicholas Day my kids always received a new Christmas book each. We now have a huge collection of beautiful xmas books. The big collection came out late Nov. after the Santa Claus parade and provided a welcome change of reading and made the focus more on the Christmas season than just the one day. Sadly, the girls have outgrown picture books (although I still find myself buying them if I see one that is worthy) but they each received a new Christmas movie this morning to add to the Christmas movie collection. The books still come out and they are still read and looked occasionally. They will definitely be saved for grandchildren in the future.

  35. I am German, so I have grown up with this holiday, and always loved it.
    Since coming to the US and having children, I have not missed a year celebrating this day. My kids are growing up putting their boots by their door the night before and will find a few goodies in the morning. I had three happy children this morning ;-)
    Thanks for sharing this story – I actually did not know that Nikolaus came from Turkey.
    Ann´s latest post: What we are learning this year

  36. This post was just lovely. I’m glad I finally got around the reading it in full. I saw from Tsh’s Facebook that this post was probably met with some criticism and definitely does not appeal to every single reader.

    I’m not sure what this contributes, but I felt I had to say it: I love the idea of good will. Even though I am agnostic, The Art of Simple and Tsh have never written anything that offended me or made me feel like anything being crammed down my throat and I appreciate her sensitivity to her readers who believe differently than she does. Those who do acts of love in the name of their respective deity/deities or lack thereof are really no different when someone’s life is made just a little better by the act.

    If nothing else, the thing to take away from the story of St. Nicholas is to help those less fortunate and think of others in the season associated with giving. And I want to thank Tsh for giving us a story to open our hearts a little more.
    Emily´s latest post: Never would I ever …

  37. LOVE this post! I’m a huge believer in the magic of Santa and I love how you shared the history. A GREAT book to read is The Autobiography of Santa Claus by Jeff Guinn. It’s a work of historical fiction and even an older tween or teen reader might see the magic of Santa after reading this! I’m posting a link to this heartwarming post on a blog I’m publishing on my site on Thursday entitled “Why I Want to Be Santa.” Thank you Tsh for reminding all of us why this season is truly special.
    Kelly´s latest post: The Power of Simplicity

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