A few years ago, we added St. Nicholas Day to our repertoire, and I wrote this post explaining why. I thought it’d be a great time to pull back to the top of the blog, especially for new readers. 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. 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 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.
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.
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 next 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.
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.
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).
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:
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!
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?
This post was first published in December, 2013.