The History of December 6th: St. Nicholas Day
A Kindly Saint
December 6th is St. Nicholas Day, the day designated by the Catholic Church in its Calendar of Saints to honor the man named Nicholas who was Bishop of Myra, which is now a part of Turkey, and noted for his saintly life.
His birthdate is unknown, but December 6th is the generally agreed upon date of his death, and it is this date that is celebrated in the Catholic and Orthodox churches and is a secular holiday in many countries.
Nicholas lived in the fourth century and died in 342 A.D. He was the son of a wealthy family, became a monk in his teens, and later a priest and bishop. Following the death of his parents, he used his inheritance to help those in need. His acts of kindness and mercy were legendary, and he became known throughout Christendom as a saintly man.
A Popular Feast Day in the Middle Ages
During the Middle Ages, the harsh dreariness of everyday life was mitigated somewhat by the festivities that surrounded the feast days of popular, well-known saints. Our word holiday is derived from holy day—the days set aside by the Church to honor and remember various saints on their feast days.
These holy day celebrations were a combination of both religious and secular elements which included a Mass in honor of the saint whose feast was being celebrated as well secular activities like having the day off from work, serving of special foods, singing, dancing, etc. Nicholas, as patron saint of children, became very popular and his feast day was and is still widely celebrated.
St. Nicholas Day Survived Protestant Reformation
The Protestant Reformation in the fifteenth century attempted to do away with the honoring of saints but ran into difficulty with Nicholas because his feast day had become a popular secular holiday as well as a Catholic holy day.
In many European countries, the gift-giving aspect of St. Nicholas day was merged into the gift-giving of Christmas and attempts were made to replace St. Nicholas with fictional secular characters such as Père Noel in France, Father Christmas in England, Father Frost in Russia, Kris Kringle in Germany, etc.
All of these fictional secular characters shared the same saintly characteristics of Nicholas—love and care for children, giving secretly at night without expectation of receiving anything in return, etc.
As has been the case with other religious and secular zealots, the attempts to eradicate St. Nicholas and the celebrations and festivities associated with him failed in the long run.
In many places, including the United States, the feast of St. Nicholas simply merged with Christmas while in other places, like Holland, it remained a separate holiday but part of the larger Christmas season.
Dutch Brought St. Nicholas Day to the United States During Colonial Times
It was the Dutch who brought St. Nicholas to their colony of New Amsterdam (now New York) in America. However, after the British took over New Amsterdam and English became the language of New York, St. Nicholas' name evolved from the Dutch “Sinterklaas" into the "Santa Claus" that we know today.
As in parts of Europe, St. Nicholas/Santa Claus merged into Christmas and, following the publication of Clement Moore's famous poem, The Night Before Christmas, his fame began to grow in the U.S.
St. Nicholas Arriving in Amsterdam in 1967
St. Nicholas Day Today
Today the Feast of St. Nicholas continues to be celebrated in various parts of the world and, upon waking up on December 6th, children in many parts of the world find candy and other little treats or gifts left in their shoes or stockings by the good saint as he made his rounds during the night.
In many other parts of the world, he has been transformed into a U.S. style Santa Claus and will not make his way around the world leaving gifts for children until Christmas Eve.
Regardless of when or how St. Nicholas makes his annual gift-giving trip, his visit will be eagerly anticipated by children and the gifts he brings will add to the festivities of the season.
Saint Nicholas and the Commercialization of Christmas
There are those who complain about the "commercialization" of the Christmas season and the commercialism can detract from the holiday's religious roots. However, we must remember that Christmas has always been more than just a religious holiday. Today it is more secular than in the past, but it has always been celebrated with gifts and other festivities. And, it should be remembered that the message of peace, brotherhood, and goodwill which is central to the Christmas season is a message everyone can appreciate.
As to commercialization, we must also remember that St. Nicholas came from a wealthy family and did not hesitate to use his wealth to purchase the things he gave to those in distress. For the past seventeen centuries, parents have honored him by buying gifts on his feast or on Christmas and secretly giving them to their children as gifts from St. Nicholas.
So the season has always had its commercial aspects. After all, St. Nicholas is the patron saint of both the children who are the focus of much of the gift-giving as well as the merchants who sell the gifts.
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© 2006 Chuck Nugent