This year we celebrated St. Nicolas day for the first time. Falling right at the beginning of Advent on December 6th, St. Nicholas Day focuses in on the man behind Santa Claus, Nicolas, the Bishop of Myra. The name Santa Clause comes from his real name Saint (Ni)Clause.
There are almost as many legends around the real person as there are around the jolly old man in a red coat. Depending on where you look you will get many versions of the same story. It is a consistent theme that he was a man of mercy, and fought against poverty and prostitution. In one of the more common tales he secretly spent a great deal to give dowries to three daughters of a poor man who could not marry without a dowry. They were to be sold to be prostituted to pay for their father's debts, but the gifts that St. Nicholas gave were more than enough for them to be married instead.
In early December we read many stories about Santa and St. Nicholas--both the real and the fictionalized man. We read about the legends associated with the Bishop, and the little elves who help Santa make gifts. I had picture books and audio stories for both. I'm sure there are movies also, but we don't tend to watch many movies these days--though I do think we made room for a fun evening of popcorn and Arthur Christmas (the family favorite Christmas movie).
The traditional way to celebrate St. Nicholas day is with moulded cookies called Speculaus. Speculas cookies are claimed by assorted countries--Holland, Belgium, and Switzerland being a few. I had never made Speculas before, so I did a lot of reading up on it, and found out it was quite a challenging skill. I purchased a mold and tried a test recipe. It was a complete flop. So then I purchased a book full of recipes. The second try went better. It was still pretty obvious that I was new to the fancy-cookie making business, but all the cookies were the proper shape, only a few stuck to the mold, and I could even see most of the image on most of the cookies. I felt like a magic worker.
Another tradition of the holiday is for the children to set their shoes by the window. In the middle of the night St. Nicholas comes and fills their shoes with either apples, oranges, candy, and nuts (for the good children) or switches and coal (bad children). In our version I had the girls each set out one of their shoes outside their room before they went to bed. The next morning the shoes each held (spilling out) a candy cane, a pouch with a couple St Nicolas cookies, and an orange. They were delighted.
Something I wasn't expecting happened as we added this holiday to our Advent season--suddenly the conflict between the secularized Christmas focused on getting gifts and the Christian Christmas of focusing on the true Gift, Christ the babe, melted away. Santa had his day. December 6th. There was room to spend a week or two reveling in the silliness of fat elves and an imaginative story of the North Pole. There was room to spend time with the true Bishop, to talk about the legends and guess at what seeds of the legends had actually happened. There was room to celebrate him simply. And then we moved on to the rest of Christmas--most of Christmas--which was focused on Christ himself. It was quite lovely--and I'm sure the good Bishop would approve.