Catholic Culture Trusted Commentary
Catholic Culture Trusted Commentary

Catholic Activity: St. Nicholas Festivities



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Rev. Sutfin gives a brief biography of St. Nicholas, including various related traditions that have developed over time all over the world.


Even though we resolve not to celebrate Christmas parties during the season of Advent, Mother Church always seems to find some reason or other to rejoice even during her most solemn penitential seasons. The Spouse just cannot be unhappy and joyless as long as the Bridegroom is present each day at Holy Mass. Even during Holy Week we hear of the "happy fault" of Adam, the "blessed Passion" of Christ, and the Cross becomes a symbol of triumph, the joy of Christians. Almost at the very outset of Advent, we gather the children together on the eve of St. Nicholas to celebrate the feast of this famous bishop.

St. Nicholas is the patron of many different groups of people, and for hundreds of years has been a popular saint in the East and in the West, greatly venerated as a wonder-worker. He is the patron of mariners, bankers, pawn-brokers, scholars and thieves! One legend tells of an occasion when the saints were gathered in heaven to converse and drink a little wine together. St. Basil filled the golden cups from a golden jug, and while all were engaged in conversation, it was noticed that St. Nicholas was nodding. One of the blessed nudged him until he awoke, and asked the cause for his slumbers. "Well, you see," he told them, "the enemy has raised a fearful storm in the Aegean. My body was dozing, perhaps, but my spirit was bringing the ships safe to shore."

He is especially the saint of children, and is known in various countries as Santa Claus, Kris Kringle and Pelznickel. Servants have been invented to accompany him and to deal with those children who have been disobedient and naughty. Since St. Nicholas is considered too kind to give scoldings and punishments, in Austria it is Krampus, in Germany Knecht Ruprecht, and in Holland Black Peter who goes along with him armed with a stout switch, while St. Nicholas merely hands gifts to the children without even noticing the bad little boys and girls. A very old legend tells of his kindness to three daughters of a poor nobleman. Since they had no dowry, they were to be sold into slavery. St. Nicholas learned of this and on three successive nights dropped a bag of gold for them down the chimney. This is said to explain the three balls over the shops of pawnbrokers, and why St. Nicholas drops his gifts for children down the chimney.

Nicholas was born at Patara in Lycia in the third century. His parents, who had been growing old without having a child, are said to have obtained him by force of prayer. Nicholas, losing his father and mother at an early age, devoted his life to the poor and afflicted of every kind. Late in his life, after he had been made Bishop of Myra in Asia Minor (present-day Turkey) Nicholas suffered imprisonment for his faith. He died tranquilly in his episcopal city pronouncing the words, "Into Thy hands, O Lord, I commend my spirit" — words which have become the short responsory of Compline. Since 1087 his relics have been preserved at Bari in Italy.

Devotion to St. Nicholas began in his native Asia Minor, and was brought to Russia by an emperor who was witness to his miraculous works. The devotion spread through Lapland and into Scandinavia, thence to all Europe and across to the New World. In early times, Nicholas was pictured as a kind, lean, ascetic bishop, but in America he became fat and jolly. His miter turned into a winter bonnet, his vestments became a snow suit. He retained his reindeer from Lapland, his love for chimneys from his own Asia Minor, and his love of children from all time.

A French legend relates that Our Lady once gave him the whole of the province of Lorraine as a reward for his kindness. As the children of that province hang up their stockings, they say:

Saint Nicholas, mon bon patron, Envoyez-moi quelqu'chose de bon.
In Holland, St. Nicholas puts in an appearance on the eve of his feast, accompanied by Black Peter. As the children sing, the door flies open and candies and nuts begin to fly all over the floor. After the jolly saint leaves, hot punch, chocolate and boiled chestnuts with butter and sugar are served. The following morning children find their shoes filled with candy hearts spice cakes, letter bankets (candies or cake bearing the child's initials), ginger cakes, or taii-taii in patterns of birds and fish, and even in the form of the saint.

In Switzerland, St. Nicholas parades the streets with his arms full of red apples, cookies and prunes for the children. In Austria and Germany he throws gilded nuts in at the door while Krampus or Rupprecht may throw in a few birch twigs. In Poland, if there is a red sunset on Saint Nicholas' day, it is said to be because angels are busy baking the saint's honey cakes.

With this much background of legend and adventure, all sorts of ideas could be brought to the fore for a celebration and party for the children on the eve or on the feast of St. Nicholas Ordinarily, it would be well to have the party on the vigil as a preparation for the Mass of St. Nicholas on the following day. After Mass the children could return home to find their stockings filled with all sorts of good things. The person who takes the part of St. Nicholas should really look like a bishop, and preferably be dressed in the costume of an early Oriental bishop. What a wonderful opportunity to study ecclesiastical attire in the early Church as mothers and friends make vestments for St. Nicholas and the costume of his servant! Each child may be addressed personally by name by the bishop, praised for his good deeds, given a little gift. The party could continue with appropriate games and songs, with the story of St. Nicholas, and explanations of Advent, Christmas and Epiphany. There is no longer any need for mothers and fathers to delude their children with nonsense about mythical Santas in outlandish snowsuits. Let us christianize our children's lives by retaining veracity and reality and substituting for Santa Claus the lean and kind ascetic bishop St. Nicholas. For inspiration and variety a little imagination and a prayer to St. Nicholas will do the trick. Perhaps at the party a prayer could be offered for the poor and orphan children of the world.

As far as songs and poems are concerned, we remember well the poem of Clement C. Moore, A Visit From St. Nicholas ("'Twas the night before Christmas, when all through the house. . . ."); also the song "Jolly Old St. Nicholas, lend your ear this way. . . ."; and in French the "Légende de St. Nicholas."

Recipes for the feast are never wanting. Florence Berger's Cooking for Christ, mentioned above, and Katherine Burton and Helmut Ripperger's Feast Day Cookbook supply the need for speculatius, ciastka miodowe (honey cakes), and rozijnon hoekies (raisin cookies). A little bishopwyn for the cold vigil makes the parents glow with happiness. "Dutch Treat," an Advent cooky, goes well with that.

Activity Source: True Christmas Spirit by Rev. Edward J. Sutfin, Grail Publications, St. Meinrad, Indiana, 1955