St. Nicholas was a Christian bishop of Myra on the coast of Asia Minor (present-day Turkey). Many miracles were credited to him. He died in the 300's A.D. By 1100 he had become a popular symbol of gift giving in many European countries. According to legend, he brought presents to children on the eve of his feast day, December 6th. Non-religious figures replaced him in certain countries after the Reformation, and December 25th became the day for giving gifts.
St. Nicholas evolved into Father Christmas in Germany and Protestant Northern Europe. The Dutch brought "the visit of Saint Nicholas" (they call him Sinterklaas) to New Amsterdam (present-day New York). They and the English colonists transformed St. Nicholas into Santa Claus. St. Nicholas Day continued to be observed in the U.S. in many communities well into the 1900's.
St. Nicholas Day honours one who showed kindness to all and took gifts to the needy. It is a celebration especially for children.
In Germany, Switzerland, the Netherlands, and Belgium, men in bishops' robes pose as St. Nicholas. They visit children, examine them on their prayers, urge them to be good, and give them gifts. Children in Europe fill their shoes with straw and carrots for his horse and place them in front of the fireplace. By morning, the straw and carrots have been replaced by presents.
German children receive candy and other sweets from St. Nicholas, who collects their lists telling what gifts they wish to receive from the Christkindl (Christ child). The Christkindl sends the Wiehnachtsmann (Christmas Man) to deliver the gifts on Christmas Eve, December 24th.
Children in northern Germany receive gifts from St. Nicholas' assistant, Knecht Ruprecht (Servant Ruppert) if they have been good, and whipping rods are left for the parents of bad children.
Children from the Netherlands, Belgium and Luxembourg receive gifts from St. Nicholas on the eve of December 6th. He arrives on a boat from Spain and then rides down the streets on a white horse, accompanied by his servant, Zwarte Piet (Black Pete). He goes down the chimney of each house, leaving gifts in the shoes that have been placed by the fireplace.
Last modified: Dec 19th, 1999
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