I was born and raised a Lutheran, and only converted to catholicism 14 years ago, so when it comes to the Saints and their feast days, I am still learning and discovering along with my children!
As Americans, we all know about Santa Claus, but it wasn't until several years ago when my husband was teaching a Catechism class to 6-8 graders, and had to play the role of "St. Nicholas", that I discovered where, and how "Santa Claus" derived from!
So many countries celebrate his feast day, (December 6th), as THE gift giving day- as if it were "Christmas"! Only the big difference is, is that they don't give "elaborate" gifts as we do here in America, and the gifts that the children receive are meant to be SHARED with others! Why? Because much like the iconic "Santa Claus", the REAL Sinterklaas (Dutch) is indeed the symbol of generosity- as he is the Patron Saint of children, orphans, students, captives, mariners, travelers,laborers, merchants, etc. Having lived in the third century, he was a man who truly obeyed the word of God, and lived his life doing all he could for others. Although he was born a man of great wealth, his parents perished when he was young, and having been raised a Christian, felt it was important to sell what he owned, and give it to the poor. He dedicated his life to assisting the poor, sick, and those who suffered. As a young man, he was made the "Bishop of Myra" (Turkey), because of his generosity and good deeds. However, he was exiled and imprisoned during the ruling of the Roman Emperor Diocletian- who was very ruthless with the persecution of Christians. It was the time spent imprisoned that he began helping those who had also been falsely accused, (since the prisons were so full of Christian holy men, there was no room for the thieves and murderers!) He died on December 6, 343 in Myra- which has become his "Feast Day" of celebration.
Specifically in the Germanic European countries, people will have elaborate festivities and parades on Dec. 5th (the eve of his feast day), and children will awake the morning of Dec. 6th to find their shoes, stockings, or boots filled with clementines, fruits, candy canes, nuts, and other goodies! Each country has their own individual traditions, beliefs, and views on how the day is to be celebrated. Many countries also have specific foods served on this day as well, (which like many European pastries), contain a lot of nuts, spices, citrus, and fruits.
Germany: Traditional Breads: Klauskeri- otherwise called "German St. Nicholas Doughman" & Nikolausstifel
Spiced cookies are traditionally made- Speculatius and Pfeffernuesse
Poland: Traditional Cookies: Clastka Miodowe (Honey cakes) & Piernik (Honey spice cookies)
Serbia: Slavski Kolach (Serbian Slava Bread)
Zhito/ Koljivo (Serbian Wheat Pudding)- "Boiled wheat symbolizes the resurrection of Christ and the hope he gives to all who live within the church."
Czech/ Slovak: Biskupsky Chelbicek (Bishop's Bread- a fruit cake of sorts)
Lot's of cookies! Vanilcove Rohlickey (walnut/almond crescent cookies)
Maslove Pecivo (Butter cookies)
Linecke Testo Dvoubarevne (black & white cookies)
Florentynky z Ovesnych Vlocek (oatmeal Florentine cookies)
Netherlands: Traditional cookies: Speculaas Koekjes (spice cookies) & Pepernoten (Dutch Peppernut cookies).
Also, there are symbols that represent St. Nicholas, and there are also dishes and recipes that will incorporate those as well. The candy cane- represents his Bishop's "Crozier"(staff), and is passed out to children, and used in desserts and baked goods for the celebration. Gingerbread, spice, and sugar cookies are cut out and decorated in the likeness of St. Nicholas or his Mitre (Bishop's hat). Chocolate coins are also used as decoration for cupcakes/cakes, as they represent the gold coins that he gave to poor families.
Perhaps you never knew there was indeed, a real person behind "Santa Claus"! Yes, St. Nicholas was a real person, who was very giving and generous to many, and is a person worth celebrating and remembering.
If you would like to learn more about St. Nicholas, and how you can celebrate, click here!
Happy St. Nicholas Day!!!