6 December is the Feast Day of Old St. Nick, a bishop waring his red mantle & mitre hat, sporting a long, white beard & carrying his golden shepherds crook. Legend has it that he helped the poor & calmed the seas; & on his feast day gives children who are good sweets or gifts.
But beware if you are bad for black Pete, or Knecht Ruprecht, will put you in his bag & take you away to the black forest until you learn your lesson… So on the night of December 5th set out your boots & leave a carrot for his horse then go to bed & dream of doing good deeds like St. Nichplas once did…
In Waldorf schools St. Nick comes into the classroom of the lower grades & shakes the hand of each child telling them what they have done well, & what they have not done so well & need to improve. This always made quite an impression on the young children to receive this gentle reckoning.
The one we know of as St. Nicholas was born in 271 AD & died around December 6, 342 or 343 AD near the Asia Minor (Turkey) town of Myra, where he later became Bishop. He performed many good deeds & was a friend to the poor & helpless. Upon his death, myths soon sprang up about him all around the Mediterranean Sea. He was reputed to be able to calm the raging seas, rescue desperate sailors, & save children. He was soon named as the patron saint of sailors, & when Myra was overthrown, his bones were transported by sailors to Bari, a port in Italy, where a tomb was built over the grave & became the center of honor for St. Nicholas. From here the legend spread on around to the Atlantic Coast of Europe & the North Sea to become a European holiday tradition regardless of religion.
In the Netherlands, legend has it that Sinterklaas (Dutch name for St. Nicholas) arrives in the Netherlands by way of steamboat from Spain 2 weeks before his traditional birthday, December 6th, along with his helper, Zwarte Piet (Black Pete), who will help disperse the gifts & candy to all the good children. Referring to his book that lists all the good & bad children, Sinterklaas will deliver presents to all the good children, but watch out if you’ve been bad! The Low Countries (Belgium & Luxemburg) have basically the same traditions surrounding St. Nicholas, but not to the extent of the Netherlands. Children in Luxemburg call him Kleeschen, & his helper is Hoseker (Black Peter). Belgian children know him as Sint Niklaas.
For families with older children & adults, different twists are added to the gift giving & may include gag gifts or the drawing of gift ideas or names, & most times are accompanied by poems with a “personal touch” that poke fun at the recipient in a gentle way (or not, depending on the families ). Wrapping the presents up in odd packages & planting a trail of clues is also part of the general fun, & can sometimes be pretty tricky to get to, depending on the squeamishness of the recipients.
In Germany, St. Nicholas is also known as Klaasbuur, Sunnercla, Burklaas, Bullerklaas,& Rauklas, & in eastern Germany, he is also known as Shaggy Goat, Ash Man, or Rider & is more reflective of earlier Norse influences that were blended in with the figure of St. Nicholas, when Christianity came to Germany. After the reformation, St. Nicholas’s attire began to change, maybe as a reflection of the change from the Roman church, & he started to wear a red suit with fur. Although he still visits many homes on Dec 5th/6th & leaves candy and gifts in the children’s shoes, more recently St. Nicholas has begun showing up on Christmas Eve in Germany & is called Father Christmas.
In France, he is also called Pere Noel (Father Christmas) & he travels in the company of Pere Fouettard. Pere Noel leaves presents for good children, while Pere Fouettard disciplines bad children.
St. Nicholas day was celebrated formerly in Russia, but under Communism he was changed to Grandfather Frost & wore blue instead of red. In Sicily, he comes on Dec 13th with Santa Lucia.