Catholic Activity: Visit of St. Nicholas
The feast of St. Nicholas on December 6 is one of the most popular feast days in Europe. Included here is a description of the "visit" of St. Nicholas.
One of the most beloved saints all through the Middle Ages was St. Nicholas of Myra. In fact, he still is the favorite saint of little children in the Catholic sections of Europe. This veneration is easily explained: he was, and still is, a special patron saint of small children. His feast day, December 6, is a great day of celebration for the little ones.
In many parts of Europe children still receive his "visit" on the eve of his feast. Impersonated by a man wearing a long white beard, dressed in the vestments of a bishop, with mitre and crozier, he appears in the homes as a heavenly messenger. Coming at the start of Advent, he admonishes the children to prepare their hearts for a blessed and holy Christmas. He examines them on their prayers. After exhorting them to be good, he distributes fruit and candy and departs with a kindly farewell, leaving the little ones filled with holy awe.
I still vividly remember the annual visit of this friendly and saintly figure on the evening of December 5. With joy and happy excitement we awaited his coming. We were convinced, as little children easily are, that he really was our great patron saint who came from heaven on his feast day to visit us children whom he loved so much.
With utter sincerity we promised him to overcome our faults, to obey our parents, and to prepare our hearts for Christmas. Gratefully we accepted his gifts and kissed the ring on his holy hand. Never again in all my life have I experienced the unspeakable thrill of a physical nearness to heaven as I did on those evenings of my childhood when "St. Nicholas" came to us. When I later found out that it was not really the saint but a man representing him, this caused me no shock or harm. The thrill I had felt remained in my memory and has remained to this day with all its beauty.
This then is the true and original form of the "visit of St. Nicholas." The date is the evening of December 5. The whole purpose and meaning of this custom is deeply religious, educational, and of wholesome emotional value.
We do not advocate that this practice of the "visit" of St. Nicholas be restored. What we advocate very much, however, is a revival of the veneration and annual celebration of the saint, who still is patron of little children. (The Church has never "deposed" him from this spiritual patronage.) Our Catholic parents would do well to pray to St. Nicholas themselves, that his intercession may help them in the training of their little ones.
Explain to your children that they have a special patron saint in heaven. Tell them his legend (see below). Teach them to love him and to pray to him every day. Make them look forward with joy and anticipation to the feast of their patron saint.
On December 6 allow your little ones a happy celebration in honor of St. Nicholas. Congratulate them, give them small presents, arrange some special enjoyments, have a "festive" meal (which can be very easily prepared for children). And do not forget some prayers to the saint. Mother could pronounce the words and have the children repeat them. Included in this prayer should always be the petition that St. Nicholas may help them to prepare their hearts for a very good and holy Christmas.
In Europe they have thousands of small figures of the saint, dressed as bishop, for sale every year before December 6. Perhaps Catholic mothers in this country might find a way to make or provide such a figure for their home. It would certainly delight our little ones to have an image of their patron saint, not a picture or statue but a figure with a "real" white beard and with "real" bishop's clothes. (Dad might help with his hobby tools.)
Activity Source: Year of the Lord in the Christian Home, The (reprinted as Religious Customs in the Family) by Francis X. Weiser, S.J., The Liturgical Press; reprinted by TAN Books and Publishers, 1964