St. Nicholas’ Day

When I was growing up, we always celebrated St. Nicholas’ Day (December 6th). As I child, it was all about my glee in getting my stocking filled weeks before my friends would get any holiday loot. But as a parent, I’ve found this to be a wonderful holiday to celebrate–one that provides a counterpoint to the Christmas hoopla.

During the week before December 6th, we do a craft or activity or two from St. Nicholas Center, which is one of the most beautiful, useful, and user-friendly websites on any topic. Then we have a Family Home Evening (on the Monday that falls before December 6th) focusing on St. Nicholas. We usually check out a few library books about Saint Nicholas as well as doing this fingerplay/echo story. We emphasize the following:

(1) Saint Nicholas was a real person who helped people because he loved Jesus.
(2) Later, some people made up more stories about St. Nicholas, so we don’t always know which ones really happened.
(3) Saint Nicholas is the person behind the idea of Santa Claus.

Then, when the kids wake up on December 6th, they find treats in their stockings. (Technical note: because we usually haven’t seen the last of the Halloween candy by December 6th, I am loathe to bring more candy into the house. So I usually buy those pre-packaged snacks that the kids love but are so hideously overpriced [Fruit Roll-Ups, fruit snacks, little packages of Teddy Grahams, Little Debby snacks, etc.] that I don’t normally buy. The added advantage here is that I don’t have to make them snacks for a good stretch in the busy month of December.) We don’t, then, put presents in their stockings on Christmas.

Why do we do this? Because it is part of my cultural heritage. Because a little gift-giving releases some of the pre-Christmas pressure. Because it provides some context for us telling the kids that Santa Claus is a fun pretend game that some families play. Because it helps our kids tie Christmas gift-giving to its origin in Christian acts of charity. Because they learn about someone who took up his cross and followed Jesus Christ.

24 comments for “St. Nicholas’ Day

  1. I think its a great idea. Christmas is wonderful, but commercialism has really put a crimp in what its all really about. I know that sounds cliche now-a-days, but its still true.

    I find it amazing that Thanksgiving is amlost entirely passed over in the stores… we go from Halloween, straight to Christmas. Christmas items show up at the beginning of November. Some radio stations even start playing continuous Christmas music starting November 1.

    Kids love holidays. To have another celebration outside the main focus can allow you to reign in the reality of the season while the pressures are still light.

    Keep it up!

  2. Good on you. Not part of my cultural tradition, so I’m unlikely to follow you, but good on you. Sounds like it would be fun growing up in the Smith house.

  3. Julie–I love this idea. My sisters were quite scandalized when I told them I did not plan to do Santa with my kids (can’t imagine lying to them about a man coming down the chimney, takes away from the real Christmas, etc.) but this idea is something I will seriously consider adopting. Thanks!

  4. Julie, thanks so much for this post and the links! After reading the St. Nicholas story in The Story of the World (vol.2) earlier this year, we decided to make it a regular part of our family traditions. (We’ve already bought the chocolate gold coins, eagerly awaiting Dec. 6–but is filling stockings or shoes more traditional?) I love your idea of a FHE beforehand.

  5. Julie:

    We also celebrate St. Niklaus Tag in our home every year, and top it off with a real German dinner of Rinderrouladen (beef rolls?), Rotkohl (red cabbage), Kloesse (strained, boiled potatoes), and other German treats which vary from year to year. And we always invite some friends over for dinner. It is one of the “Christmas” traditions my wife and I (and kids) really look forward to.

    We differ in that rather than leaving something in their stocking first thing in the morning, when everyone comes for dinner all the children leave their shoes outside and when the evening comes to a close they find something left in their shoes.

    I really like the idea to emphasize the three points you mention, Julie, and will do so this year as well. Thanks for the idea!

  6. A roommate and I once hosted a St. Viviana’s Feast on December 2. It was just an excuse to have some girls over for dinner.

  7. We do Niklaus here, too. The kids leave their shoes out at night, along with carrots or apples for Niklaus’ horse. The Santa Claus thing is helped enormously by the fact that St. Nicholas also visits their school, with his sidekick, Rupert, so we get a chance to deal with the whole “dressing up to honor memory” thing. We’ve never explicitly told them whether there is or isn’t a real Santa Claus; we’ve talked about the spirit of giving and kindness to children personified by St. Nicholas and let them draw their own conclusions about whether Santa is “really” St. Nick, or just people honoring his memory. Interestingly, my just-turned-seven-year-old is very jaded about Santa, confident that it’s just mom, dad, and some guy with pillows at the mall, while my almost-nine-year-old is a true believer.

    Anyway, we love the chance to spread out the gifts over the month, so that Christmas afternoon doesn’t have that horrible feeling of a popped balloon. We do St. Lucia on the 13th, as well, though I’m a little hesitant about extolling the virtues of the Virgin Martyrs :)

  8. Julie, this is a great post; thanks for the ideas.

    Kristine, I liked your contribution too; thanks. (I should note that your nine-year-old, being older and wiser than your seven-year-old, is of course correct.)

  9. Kristine, at the school I’m currently teaching at, there is a large population of kids from Scandanavia. The school has a big St. Lucia presentation and I was thinking of inocrporating a little of it at home too. A good way to remind the kids of their Scandanavian heritage too.

    Funny, I’ve never wated to lie to my kids either, so I never said that Santa was real. My little girl just assumed he was, even though I would say, “oh that’s just a guy in a Santa suit.” Last summer, she was 5 and looked me in the eye and said, “Mom, is santa real? Tell me the truth!” I told her to go ask her dad. He told her the truth and she came back in and gave me a wink with the promise not to tell her little brother. But she still is totally in to the fantasy and lakes lists and wants to put cookies out for santa and all that. Kids have an amazing way to “play the game”!

  10. Great post, Julie. Another benefit of doing this is that, for me, the stockings on Christmas morning are almost an afterthought next to the more substantial presents under the tree. This is a nice way to retain that tradition, but by separating it from Christmas making it more special.

    A columnist in the Chicago Tribune is advocating changing Halloween to the last day of September and moving Thanksgiving to the end of October rather than November. A calendar like that might make St. Nicholas’ Day even more enticing.

  11. Jordan, I wish I could be there.

    We’re following the traditional advent calendar at our place complete with some of the liturgical readings. It is really cool.

    Of course St. Niklaus is a must, but we need to get Andrea’s Rinderrouladen recipe!

  12. I found out about St. Niklaustag when I took German in high school. One of our student teachers asked us to bring shoes to class by December 5th so she could fill them with goodies. Then during my freshman year at BYU, a boy from my ward and I decided to make a tradition of celebrating St. Niklaustag. One fall semester a young man from Hamburg named Guido (he pronounced it like Greedo without the “r”) moved into our ward. He was extremely bright, spoke excellent English, and didn’t have much difficulty being social. Still, he was very clearly homesick for Germany. I bought a couple of tangerines and some Ritter-Sport chocolate bars and got my friend to put them in Guido’s shoes on the eve of December 6th. Guido was extremely appreciative of the gesture and wouldn’t rest until he found out who was responsible. But the funny thing is that his family never celebrated St. Niklaustag, so he didn’t have any idea why we thought of putting candy in his shoes. I felt a bit sheepish but was glad I acted on the impulse anyway.

  13. Oh, come on! Santa is totally real, you guys! He just has technology we don’t have! It all makes perfect sense. He has a multidimensional space-time travel machine something like the Doctor’s tardis, but not quite as good. Because his technology is limited, it makes it much easier for him if he locates it at the earth’s pole, because that way he can neglect the spin of the planet in his navigational computations. It’s just as easy for him to move through time as it is through space, so he picks one night a year for his travels, because it’s a lot more convenient to figure out where along its orbit around the sun the earth will be if you confine yourself to one night a year. It’s just very awkward when you materialize in a spot way out in space because the earth happens to be on the opposite side of the sun from you because you dropped a decimal point.

    Obviously he wants to pick a night in northern wintertime, because there are far more houses to visit in the northern hemisphere, and it even with time travel, it helps having a long night to get it all done. He just keeps traveling back in time again and again, interleaving his visits to the home base so there won’t be too much congestion. He actually spends most of his year distributing gifts, though in our timestream it all falls during a couple of nights. (He found it convenient to work the Epiphany for some parts of the world, and spread it out a little.)

    He doesn’t actually come down the chimney, that’s just a legend. Because he can travel through more than 3 spatial dimensions, he’s able to get inside closed houses with no more trouble than you and I would have making a pencil mark inside an unbroken circle on a piece of paper. (That ability of ours totally astonishes the denizens of Flatland, of course.) The chimney thing was just a wrong guess made in a time when everyone heated their houses with fires and nobody understood higher-dimensional geometry.

    His personal story is long and sad, in a gloriously wonderful way, something like Joseph Smith’s, for that matter. Suffice it to say that he feels he has much to repent for, as do we all, and he takes joy in anonymous service, and particularly delights in the wonders of childhood and the simple happiness that gifts can bring. He’s an awesome guy and our planet is lucky to have him here. He’s tickled about all the legends that spring up around him, prefers to stay rather secretive and mythic-archetype-like, but absolutely loves it that others have taken up his ideas and followed his lead.

    So now I’ve let the cat out of the bag, for the benefit of the readers of Times and Seasons. Let’s hear no more of this nonsense about Santa not being real!

  14. Tatiana–

    Your post kinda made me think that Santa’s work might be kinda like using WordPress for a blog: he just makes his deliveries, postdates them, and they appear at the right time.

  15. Julie, that would totally work! You should write him a letter with your idea. If he put the time travel machinery in the packages themselves, he could launch them all year long and have them all show up right on Christmas Eve. That’s a really good thought!

    Russell, I’m so glad you believe it too! My nieces are careful not to mention around me their belief that Santa isn’t real, because they don’t want to shatter my illusions, I think, but the last few years they’ve received several gifts from mysterious sources (not it’s not me) so I think they are starting to come around again to my viewpoint.

    When they were little, the oldest asked me one of the hardest kid questions I’ve ever had to answer, “Why does Santa Claus give more toys to rich kids than poor kids?” That one totally stumped me and made us both cry. I told her I didn’t understand that either but I knew Santa was fair. I’ve tried to figure out why ever since, and I’ve come up with a few possible answers, but I’m still not totally satisfied. What do you think?

  16. That’s a tough one, Tatiana; like all the Mysteries, there’s a lot we have to take on faith. Still, I’m willing to say this much. I’m of the mind that Santa/St. Nick/Weihnachtsmann/whatever doesn’t actually deliver every single present given under his name every Christmas; I mean, I think it’s entirely possible that he’s visited our home before, but to my knowledge every present that any of our children have ever received from Santa Claus was actually put their by us (with his tacit permission, of course). I assume it’s the same with the great majority of families everywhere in the Christian world. So, since we’re dealing with personal resources here, obviously wealthy parents are able to give their children much more from “Santa” than poor parents can; the same for differences across communities and whole nations.

    To an extent, I think Santa is ok with this; like all the best egalitarians, I assume he realizes that a perfect leveling of gifts would be both impossible to achieve and counter-productive to the sort of charitable spirit he wants (or, if you want my personal opinion, has been commissioned by a Higher Power) to encourage. But all that aside, your oldest is right: there’s a lot of unfairness which is tolerated as a result. Why does Santa put up with it? Probably because he’s not allowed to stop us from misusing our gifts in his name, if we so choose. And perhaps it’s not even an “allowed” thing; maybe he genuinely, if sorrowfully, agrees with the aforementioned Higher Power that we need to be allowed to make whatever use we will of the gifts we’ve been given–even when our misuse of them often leads some adults to think that the whole thing, being so “obviously” arbitrary, must therefore being a fiction.

  17. (smiles) I agree. And maybe it’s so there will be no dearth of good gifts for us to give each other, and so that there will be an obvious need for us to join with him and share his spirit of giving, so that we can all learn the joys of that too

  18. “I think Santa is ok with this; like all the best egalitarians, I assume he realizes that a perfect leveling of gifts would be both impossible to achieve and counter-productive to the sort of charitable spirit he wants (or, if you want my personal opinion, has been commissioned by a Higher Power) to encourage.”

    Russell: Give me some sure sign that you’re not joking here–your defense of Santa seems as tongue-in-cheek as your profession of belief. I know from previous statements that you do “really believe” in some sense, so I’m puzzled. Forgive me if I’m misreading you. If showering massive amounts of needless items on one’s own (while others go without) and then calling such a shower a reward for goodness, is the best kind of egalitarianism (and even **charity**?), I’m wondering what counts as plutocracy.

    I’m not at all one to throw cold water on any and all celebrations that are not enjoyed by everyone. The fact that some people will sit down to little or nothing on Christmas day should not necessarily spoil my turkey dinner (though it should prompt me to invite others). But what Santa does goes well beyond that. The claim about Santa is that if you don’t get anything, then you’ve been bad. In actual fact, that’s the biggest fib of all–the world is still waiting for the Christmas when a bad kid didn’t get anything but coal in his stocking, simply because he was bad (and for the day when the poor kid *did* get something, simply because he was good). Hence the story about Santa is much harder to believe if you’re poor than if your rich. Funny, the story about Jesus is just the opposite.

    Any decent parent loves to see their kids have a blast. Most kids do on Christmas morning. But I fail to see how this embodies a “charitable spirit”. I’ve never met anyone who has said that all those Christmas mornings taught them about charity. Forgive me if this is getting dour and serious, but you started it (at least the serious part) :.).

    I’ve never said to my daughter: “Santa isn’t real”. I don’t think I ever will. My explanation is actually very close to the one Julie describes. Maybe I’d say that St. Nicholas in fact is a real person, who if credible accounts are to be believed, really did serve Jesus and was very kind to children (as well as to students and prostitutes, if those same traditions are to be believed). Problem is that like many other people who believe in Jesus he’s been led terribly astray by Dec. 25, so much so that he’s become complicit in unChristian ways of thinking and acting. Saying to children that “I know Santa is all good all knowing and perfect”, in the face of all these things, actually disturbs me a bit–it seems like a perfect charicature of religious belief (another reason I’m not in Santa’s fan club).

  19. Jeremiah,

    “If showering massive amounts of needless items on one’s own (while others go without) and then calling such a shower a reward for goodness, is the best kind of egalitarianism (and even **charity**?), I’m wondering what counts as plutocracy.”

    You’re misreading my post. I didn’t say our civilization’s Christmas gift-giving habits constitute the “best kind of egalitarianism”; I said that the “best [kind of] egalitarians,” in my view, recognize that one cannot and should not attempt to achieve a perfect parity in every and all possessions and gifts. Societies that strive for that kind of equality–completely equal incomes, standardized homes, etc.–always end up, so far as I can tell, becoming tyrannical, and never really advancing personal or collective virtue along the way either. The latter-day prophets and apostles who did the most to advance Jospeh Smith’s early ideas about consecration rarely, if ever, talked about abolishing or completely equalizing private property, possessions, and stewardships; instead, they talked about how important it was that 1) everyone’s needs be satisfied, and 2) no one have so much more than another as to set up social distinctions, which is where inequality’s real damage is always done. It seems to me that this is the fundamental insight of all the best socialist thinking (even the private property which Marx, in the Communist Manifesto, talked about abolishing was “bourgeois” property, or in other words the means of production, not all personal possessions.)

    Sorry; this was supposed to be a post on Santa, wasn’t it?

    “The claim about Santa is that if you don’t get anything, then you’ve been bad.”

    Yep, people say that. And some people say that God hates gays. Both claims are terribly wrong; they are, in my view, corrupted twists upon simpler, more basic truths.

    “I fail to see how this embodies a ‘charitable spirit’. I’ve never met anyone who has said that all those Christmas mornings taught them about charity.”

    Really? I tend to think that a lot–certainly not everything, but a goodly amount–of what I know about charity arises from my years as a child of having received unasked-for Christmas gifts, and now as an adult from taking part in delivering such unasked-for Christmas gifts to my own children and others (sometimes anonymously, sometimes not). But again, I think you may have misunderstood me up above; my point is not that Christmas, as presently exists in America, is by definition an example of charity (it isn’t!); I mean rather that the activities which one may reasonably attribute to Santa Claus at Christmastime are by no means necessarily incompatible with charity.

    “Problem is that like many other people who believe in Jesus, [Santa]’s been led terribly astray by Dec. 25, so much so that he’s become complicit in unChristian ways of thinking and acting.”

    Could be, but I doubt it. Someone who has been alive that long very likely has some sort of close relationship the Higher Powers, and I don’t think They’d grant such powers to anyone without being quite sure of his ability to endure to the end. I suspect that Santa’s feelings about Dec. 25 are often as bittersweet as anyone else’s.

  20. Russell: Thanks for the response.

    “recognize [….] possessions.)”

    I don’t dispute anything in that paragraph.

    “Yep, people say that. And some people say that God hates gays. Both claims are terribly wrong; they are, in my view, corrupted twists upon simpler, more basic truths.”

    The amount of people who say what I’ve attributed to the gospel of Santa are many many more than the people who say God hates gays. Theism isn’t dominated by the idea that “God hates gays”, but Santaism is dominated by “he’s making a list and checking it twice”. It seems like when you say you believe in Santa you’re talking about someone completely different from the person everyone else believes in. So if you are saying you believe you probably add a big caveat that you don’t believe he acts at all in the way most people think he acts. If assuming that this is how you would put it, perhaps I’m wrong.

    “Could be, but I doubt it. Someone who has been alive that long very likely has some sort of close relationship the Higher Powers”

    Point taken–perhaps we’re talking about different things. I’m talking mainly about the tradition, which has its roots in a real person who lived, and I’m remaining agnostic on the issue whether there really is a very old guy walking the earth right now. In that sense, I agree wherever he is he may indeed be dismayed by all the bad santas misbehaving in his name (in which case we might think it best to repudiate the whole tradition of Santa rather than embracing it). But if we leave aside the possibility that there is some enormous equivocation going on when people say the word “Santa”, some story of corruption (whether it involves a single human being or a whole string of people who acted in a single office or persona) seems pretty plausible to me.

  21. Well, the doctrines of men get mixed up with the truth. Maybe Santa just needs to set the record straight somehow. I think the story that Santa gives a lump of coal (or switches and ashes, which is what I was told) to naughty kids is just the sort of empty threat to which most children are quite accustomed, and which they understand perfectly well. I never yet heard of anyone getting real coal or ashes in their stockings on Christmas, though I know one fellow who puts that on his list every year. Coal and an ugly tie. But I digress.

    The story goes that if you’re naughty you get something vile instead of presents and sweets, but it doesn’t say that those who get more gifts were nicer children. It doesn’t say that the most expensive gifts go to the best children, I don’t think. At least I never heard that. That would indeed be an ugly twisting of the story.

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