The Story of St. Nicholas
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Growing up in Germany, the start of December means only one thing: it’s time to start polishing your boots. As a child, each year on December 5th I would dig out my shoe brush and spend the evening hunched over my boots, furiously polishing them until they gleamed in the warm winter lights. When morning arrived on December 6th, my siblings and I would wake early, running to find the boots we’d placed by our front door the night before. Tucked inside were sprigs of sweet smelling pine, mandarins, candied nuts, little chocolates, and a small gift. We had been visited by St. Nicholas.
Though his legacy would eventually inspire the mythos of Santa Claus, the very real Saint Nicholas lived in the third and fourth centuries. Born to wealthy parents, Nicholas of Myra led a pious life in what is now Southern Turkey, eventually becoming a bishop. He earned his sainthood with miracles and frequent generosity towards those in need–he gave away much of his inherited riches–though he was known for being especially kind towards children. According to legend, he once met three young sisters in peril of entering prostitution–their father being too poor to pay their dowries. Hearing of their troubles, Nicholas snuck onto their roof one night and dropped three lumps of gold down their chimney. The three pieces of gold fell into the three sisters’ boots, warming by the fire. When Nicholas died on December 6th 346, the date became a holiday observed in his honor.
During the Reformation, Martin Luther banned celebrations of St. Nicholas and attempted to lure his followers away from revering saints by inventing the character of Krist Kindle (who would eventually become Kris Kringle, familiar today as Santa Claus). Krist Kindle, a cherub of Christ, remained quite similar to St. Nicholas–he also left gifts for children–but his presence served to highlight and compliment Jesus Christ and Christmas. Though much of Santa Claus is borrowed from St. Nicholas (including the long white beard), St. Nicholas has remained a beloved figure, particularly in Germany.
Today, children celebrate the holiday by placing a thoroughly polished boot (just one, so as not to appear greedy) by the window or door on the evening of December 5th. If they have been well behaved and their boot is clean, Nicholas (or Nikolaus as he is known in Germany) leaves fruits, chocolates, and candies in their shoe during the night. If they have been mischievous and ill-behaved, tradition dictates they will find a twig or switch (for their parents to spank them with) come morning, though this practice has largely disappeared in modern times. In some places, children leave a list of what they would like for Christmas, for Nicholas to pass on to Father Christmas.
As a child, I loved Nikolaus–and as an adult, I still celebrate the holiday. Living in the United States, however, the tradition is much less known. One year, my boyfriend awoke on the morning of December 6th to find his shoes filled with chocolate, pine, and beard oil, inspiring confusion, rather than the eager excitement I experienced when I was younger. He asked me why I’d left left things in his boots but I only smiled and shook my head.
“St. Nicholas has been here!”