Every year, on December 6, many countries in northern and Eastern Europe celebrate the feast of Saint Nicholas. This feast, which owes its name to the great Saint Nicholas, takes place shortly before the feast of Christmas, and evokes the traditions of the end of the year: we find an old bearded man distributing gifts and treats, ancestor of Santa Claus!
What is the origin of this Christian festival, how does it take place and what are the traditions surrounding it? This article offers a light on this beautiful feast of Saint Nicholas!
The feast of Saint Nicholas owes its name to Saint Nicholas, formerly bishop of Myra, in Turkey. A historical figure who lived in the 3rd century, he is renowned for his great charity and piety. Many miracles are attributed to him, which led him to be canonized: he then took the name of "Saint Nicholas".
After the victory of the Battle of Nancy in 1477, he became patron saint of Lorraine. A popular fervor then arose in his name in this region, then throughout Alsace, and in many countries of northern and Eastern Europe.
He also became the patron saint of children and schoolchildren.
Every year, Saint Nicholas is celebrated on December 6. This date corresponds to the anniversary of the death of Bishop Nicholas of Myra, in the year 343.
At his death, the worship of Saint Nicholas spread, and many pilgrimages were organized to his tomb.
A famous legend dating from the 12th century surrounds the character of Saint Nicholas.
It is said that three young children, left "gleaning in the fields", went astray and were welcomed by an innkeeper. The latter, ill-intentioned, cut them into pieces and placed them in a jar. Saint Nicholas, passing by and discovering the terrible misdeed, stretched out three fingers and resurrected the children.
This story gave rise to many popular songs, bringing the legend to life.
Saint Nicholas is celebrated in many countries of northern and Eastern Europe: The Netherlands, Germany, Austria, etc. In France, Saint Nicholas' Day is only celebrated in certain French regions: mainly in Alsace - of which Saint Nicholas is the patron saint - but also in Hauts-de-France and Burgundy-Franche-Comté.
According to the countries and regions, the traditions vary, although we always find the character of Saint Nicholas, responsible for distributing gifts and sweets to children.
The festivities can last for several weeks in a row and often consist of a parade of Saint Nicholas on his donkey, markets of Saint Nicholas and illuminations.
In some European countries, such as the Netherlands, where the fervor of December 6 is very present, Saint Nicholas arrives by steamboat, then goes around the city on a donkey accompanied by his acolytes.
To the delight of children, the great Saint Nicholas is staged during parades and gift-giving. The figure of Saint Nicholas is then that of an old man dressed as a bishop: a mitre on his head, a red and white coat, a cross in his hand. He has a long white beard, and has a benevolent and warm appearance.
He is often accompanied by his donkey, and sometimes by companions such as Father Fouettard or the Zwarte Piet, little valets covered with soot.
If Saint Nicholas is particularly appreciated by children, it is because during the night before December 6, he descends from the sky, slips into houses accompanied by his donkey and distributes gifts and confectionery to deserving children. It is customary to place carrots for the donkey of Saint Nicholas in front of the front door and leave his shoes to receive gifts.
The character of Saint Nicholas is often associated with that of Father Fouettard. While the first is a historical figure, the second is imaginary. The legend of Saint Nicholas says that after resurrecting the three children, Saint Nicholas chained the mischievous innkeeper to his donkey, which thus became Father Fuettard.
If we attribute to Saint Nicholas the role of protector of children, Father Fouettard is on the contrary an evil character, responsible for reprimanding naughty children.
Father Fouettard has an evil appearance: he is dressed in black and equipped with a whip and a large charcoal bag. In some areas, it is even depicted with horns and a tail, so that he looks like the devil.
The emblematic character of Santa Claus, invented in the nineteenth century, was greatly inspired by that of Saint Nicholas. We find an old man dressed in red and white, bearded, giving the image of a benevolent person.
While the two characters are similar, their symbolism is very different! Saint Nicholas, unlike Santa Claus, did exist, and he is credited with many miracles in favor of children!
The feast of Saint Nicholas, December 6, is a great opportunity for you to pray as a family around this great saint, named patron saint of children. This feast also takes you to the birth of Jesus, at Christmas!
Follow Hozana's proposals to pray alone or as a family!