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Restoring the Feast of St. Nicholas

Rachel L. Lozowski
On December 6, many countries in Europe celebrate the feast of St. Nicholas with great joy. The anticipation that filled the souls of young and old on the Eve of this night acted as a sweet prelude to Christmas.

black peter

St. Nicholas and two Schmutzlis (Whippers) process from the Church in Switzerland to make their visits

germany st nicholas

In Germany: St Nicholas, accompanied by Servant Rupert and Buttmandls (straw men)

On the Eve of the feast, children lay out their shoes or hang up stockings for St. Nicholas to leave his gifts if they have been good children. Then, the children wait by their doors excitedly awaiting the arrival of St. Nicholas with his trusted servant.

The servant of St. Nicholas is different in each country. In Holland, he is portrayed as Black Peter, a Moor who gives coal and switches to bad children. In France, there is Père Fouettard, the infamous innkeeper who, according to legend, murdered three boys by drowning them in a barrel of brine.

In Germany, St. Nicholas is accompanied by Knecht Ruprecht - Servant Rupert - who gives sticks, stones or coal in place of treats to those children who do not know their prayers or misbehave. In central European countries, Krampus – a good custom distorted today by the Satanic impulses of our day – accompanies St. Nicholas bearing chains, bells and a basket to carry naughty children away.

Here we see how the same custom – inspired by a liturgical feast of the Church – differed from place to place to adapt to the unique spirit of each country. In an organic Catholic society, liturgical customs are not sterile or rigidly programmed activities, but are natural manifestations of a particular people who respond to a special feast day.

nancy france st nicholas

A grand parade in Nancy, France that ends with St. Nicholas on a float & spectacular fireworks

st nicholas festival nancy
Every country practiced the same custom in a unique way. There is no prescription or rule book to follow. Thus, to restore these customs each family and community should look to the past and learn what has been done, and then follow the inspirations of grace, finding portrayals of the good St. Nicholas and his companion who punishes the bad children in a way that appeals to their psychology.

In many countries, St. Nicholas parades through the streets handing out candies, cookies and fruit to the children or riding a magnificent steed. Still today we can see the magnificent St. Nicholas festival in Nancy, the capitol of Lorraine, France, whose patron is St. Nicholas.

A brilliant parade with colorful floats escorts St. Nicholas, who comes at the end of the parade to meet the Mayor and receive the key to the city. A grand firework display follows.

In other countries, St. Nicholas personally visits every house, making a lasting impact on not only the young but the old as well. He comes as a reminder for the household to continue to grow in virtue and overcome vices so that all will be ready when the Christ Child comes at Christmas.

In Holland there is a beautiful ceremony that accompanies this joyful day. The children wait by their doors for St. Nicholas and Black Peter to come and visit them. As they watch for their guest, they drink hot punch and hot chocolate, and eat cakes and roasted nuts, singing traditional songs of St. Nicholas. Alll gather round to listen to their parents tell them stories of the great miracles and legends of the Saint. Suddenly, the children hear a knocking on the door. The mistress of the house bids the guest come in.


Shoes filled with treats on St. Nicholas morning

To the joy of all, the holy Bishop himself walks through the door. He greets the children and bids them to be good Catholics. Then, he addresses each child, warning each of his main fault and encouraging his virtues. After that, Black Peter threatens the children with his whip and St. Nicholas leaves giving a blessing. As he leaves, candy comes flying over the door for the children, as if sent by an Angel.

Then the children place their charming wooden shoes on a white tablecloth in a locked room. When the children wake in the morning, they find all of their shoes are filled with sweets and small gifts. All of these seemingly miraculous proceedings are meticulously planned by the father of the house. He or a trusted friend dresses as St. Nicholas with his carefully made list of each child's vices or virtues. The mother fills the shoes with sweets and presents after the children are asleep.

The father plays a major role in these activities and Dutch fathers used to take these roles very seriously. This is an important part of the restoration of good customs: for the head of the home to play a significant role in a mature and joyful way.

Restoring the day

Here a few suggestions for restoring some of the spirit of Christmas in your home:

morning st nicholas

The start of a joyous feastday in Holland

* The St. Nicholas songs and legends can be learned. Then, gathering round as a family, tell the legends and sing on December 5 to prepare everyone for his feast. When the father tells the stories from memory, the stories have both a greater charm and impact on the members of the family.

* Special cookies, cakesor breads can be made in honor of the saint to enjoy in the evening of December 5 in anticipation of the arrival of the saint.

* The ceremony of St. Nicholas and his bad servant knocking at the door can be made as the grand finale of the night. The most important thing is to maintain a spirit of solemnity and marvel that will attract persons of all ages.

* The children can hang either stockings on the mantle or leave out their shoes to be filled. You can even purchase the beautiful Dutch wooden shoes and paint them to be used every year on this feast.

* In the morning, after the children find the presents left for them by St. Nicholas, there can be a special meal to commemorate the Saint.


For those who would like to read more about how this feast took place in the past, I include here an example of how this feast was celebrated in Holland. In it we can see how a seriousness and wonder enveloped every member of the household. The excerpt is from Hans Brinker or The Silver Skates by Mary Mapes Dodge in the Chapter 'The Festival of St. Nicholas.'

st nicholas day


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Posted December 5, 2019

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