While pretty much everyone in the U.S. is familiar with Christmas, one fun winter holiday you may not have heard of is St. Nicholas Day on December 6. Typically celebrated by leaving small surprise gifts in shoes or stockings, the day is meant to honor the generous spirit of Saint Nicholas, the historical inspiration for our contemporary version of Santa Claus!
St. Nicholas Day celebrations are very common in European and eastern Asian countries, and it can be a fun new tradition to add to your family’s holiday season. How do you celebrate St. Nicholas Day? We give some more specific suggestions and historical traditions below, but it can be as simple as leaving a small gift or some fun snacks for each member of your household. Younger kids especially will love this unexpected early visit from Saint Nick, and older children will enjoy learning a little about the historical basis for modern Christmas celebrations!
What is St. Nicholas Day?
St. Nicholas Day is a yearly celebration of the life of Saint Nicholas of Myra, who inspired the modern-day figure of Santa Claus. It is sometimes also referred to as the Feast of St. Nicholas. St. Nicholas Day traditions usually include the giving of small gifts, often in shoes that children leave out the night before. (This makes it a great time to surprise the family with some small, inexpensive Christmas gifts a few weeks early!)
Nicholas of Myra (now known as St. Nicholas) was a 4th-century bishop who achieved sainthood after his death. Very little is known about the life of St. Nicholas, but stories of his generosity and devotion to the poor formed the basis for the contemporary figure of Santa Claus (Old “Saint Nick”). Specifically, one story about St. Nicholas leaving gold for three daughters whose father could not afford a dowry formed the basis for Santa Clause leaving gifts over Christmas Eve night.
When is St. Nicholas Day?
St. Nicholas Day is celebrated on December 6th every year. This date was chosen to commemorate the day of St. Nicholas’s death and to celebrate his life and generous spirit. Sometimes celebrations start on the night of December 5th, similar to how Christmas celebrations often start on Christmas Eve.
(Some Eastern Christian countries that still use the Julian Calendar, such as the Orthodox Church of Russia, may celebrate St. Nicholas Day on December 19.)
What Religions Celebrate St. Nicholas Day?
Because Nicholas of Myra was a saint in the Catholic church, St. Nicholas Day is primarily a Christian holiday. It is especially popular among European Catholic and German Lutheran populations.
However, since it is St. Nicholas himself and his spirit of care and generosity that is being celebrated, it does not have to be an exclusively religious tradition. It can be fun to surprise the family or someone special with a small gift slipped into their shoes on December 6. Something as simple as a sweet note and a few decadent Godiva chocolates can be a heartwarming show of appreciation and affection to start off the winter holiday season.
Why Do We Celebrate St. Nicholas Day?
St. Nicholas is the patron saint of sailors, travelers, clergy, school children, and thieves, having devoted his life to serving the less fortunate and those in need. Some stories about St. Nicholas even say he routinely sold his possessions and gave the money to the poor. Celebrating St. Nicholas Day offers a time to reflect on that spirit of caring for others by exchanging gifts and surprising loved ones with little unexpected signs that you care!
What Are St. Nicholas Day Traditions?
The most common St. Nicholas Day tradition is for children to leave their shoes out in the entryway or by the fireplace hoping that St. Nicholas may leave them a small present. This comes from the old practice of leaving one’s shoes by the fireplace to dry overnight, only to find them on the morning of St. Nicholas Day filled with gifts, coins, or clever notes.
There are many other traditional ways of celebrating St. Nicholas Day that can be updated for a contemporary twist. For example, one popular German tradition is for children to dress up like St. Nick and collect money for the poor. Why not spend a little family time at the beginning of December collecting unused clothing, toys, or some household items like canned goods and donating them to an organization that redistributes these items to those in need?
One great thing about the holidays is the fun of creating your own unique family traditions leading up to Christmas, Kwanzaa, or Hanukkah. Finding your own twist on St. Nicholas Day can give the whole household something to look forward to at the end of each year. Try marking December 6 as the day your family puts up holiday decorations, and pick up some gourmet treats like meats & cheeses, and hot chocolate for everyone to enjoy afterward!