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Why do we celebrate Saint Nicholas? The history & significance of the saint

Nicholas of Myra is one of the most popular and well-known saints of the Church. But who was Saint Nicholas, how did the customs for his day of remembrance on 6 December originate and how is the feast of Saint Nicholas celebrated in other countries? In this article, you will learn everything about the history and significance of Saint Nicholas, who is said to have worked miracles during his lifetime.

Who was Saint Nicholas?

Why do we celebrate Saint Nicholas (Greek: "victor of the people")? According to a representative YouGov survey from 2019, 78 per cent of Germans believe that people should learn more about the origins of the Saint Nicholas custom and its meaning. According to researchers, Saint Nicholas is based on two historical figures - Nicholas of Myra and Nicholas of Sion.

The life of Nicholas of Myra

Only a few established historical facts exist about the life of Nicholas of Myra. By the time his history has been recorded, he had long since died, leaving the story of his life to become mixed up with that of another man named Nicholas, who lived in the 6th century. What is certain is that he was born between 270 and 286 AD in Patara (now Turkey), which was part of the Roman Empire. At a young age, he was ordained a priest, and soon afterwards he was appointed Bishop of Myra in the region of Lycia. According to legend, Nicholas was imprisoned and tortured during the persecution of Christians. He is also said to have taken part in the first ecumenical council in church history, the Council of Nicaea in 325.

Nicholas died on 6 December between 345 and 365 AD. The day of his death was named after him to commemorate his good deeds. Nicholas of Myra is said to have been buried in the church of St. Nicholas in Demre. In 1087, Italian sailors brought his remains to Bari in Italy. His relic in the Cathedral of St. Nicola is revered by Catholics and Orthodox alike.

Legends of Saint Nicholas

There are numerous legends and myths surrounding Saint Nicholas and his deeds, which account for his popularity and importance. All Saint Nicholas stories have one thing in common: they convey the image of a kind and helpful person who alleviated people's hardship with his miraculous work.

The Dowry donation

According to one of the most well-known legends, Nicholas helped a poor man and his daughters. Because he could not marry off his three daughters properly due to a lack of dowry, the man intended to turn them into prostitutes. In response, Saint Nicholas brought the three virgins gold coins every night until they had enough money for a wedding.

The calming of the storm

On one occasion, Saint Nicholas rescued sailors from a sea storm. In their fear of death, they called on Saint Nicholas. Thereupon a man endowed with superhuman powers appeared on board, took over the helm, set the sails correctly, calmed the storm and brought the ship safely into harbour. In gratitude for their rescue from extreme distress, the sailors prayed in the church of Myra, where they recognised their saviour and thanked him. Because of this tale, Nicholas is still considered the patron saint of seafarers today.

The miracle of the grain

When famine reigned in Saint Nicholas' hometown due to a drought, a fully loaded ship suddenly passed by on its way to the Emperor in Rome. Since the captain did not want to give any of the grain to the starving people, Nicholas spoke to him. He persuaded him to donate grain to the starving people of Myra. Through Saint Nicholas' prayer, the ship miraculously arrived at its destination missing none of its cargo, despite the generous gift.

The cult of Saint Nicholas

Saint Nicholas is one of the most venerated saints in Christendom and the patron saint of countries (including Russia and Croatia), of numerous professions (including seamen, tailors, bakers, weavers, butchers, notaries and lawyers) and of children. And for good reason: Saint Nicholas exemplified timeless values such as charity, kindness, mercy, honesty, energy and helpfulness. The veneration began around 200 years after his death in Greece and subsequently reached the Slavic countries. In Russia, only Mary, the mother of Jesus, is more venerated than Nicholas.

Depiction of Saint Nicholas

Saint Nicholas is traditionally depicted throughout the Latin Church in the robes of a Catholic bishop with a mitre, crosier and long cloak. He usually appears in red and white, but in some areas also in gold and white. Occasionally, Saint Nicholas is also depicted with three golden balls or three golden apples. The Eastern Church depicts Saint Nicholas in a bishop's habit, with a book of the Gospels and a teaching or blessing gesture.

What customs are associated with Saint Nicholas Day?

Although Saint Nicholas Day is not a public holiday in Germany, Austria and Switzerland, it is still very important as a Christian day of remembrance and an integral part of pre-Christmas customs. On this day, all men with the name Nikolaus or the short form Klaus also celebrate their name.

Saint Nicholas the Gift-Giver: Leaving a boot or shoe outside your door

The custom of putting a boot or shoes outside the door on the eve of 6 December, which is widespread throughout the German-speaking Alpine region, is derived from "Schiffchensetzen". Established in the 15th century, this tradition consisted of making paper ships in which Saint Nicholas was supposed to place his gifts. Later, the little ship was replaced by boots or stockings, which were placed in front of the door on Saint Nicholas' Eve and filled with sweets overnight. The custom is based on the legend of the three virgins whom Saint Nicholas is said to have given presents to during the night.

Saint Nicholas brings nuts, mandarins and apples on St. Nicholas Day.Mandarins, nuts and apples: On Saint Nicholas Day, children are given a little present.

The Reformation, above all Martin Luther, rejected the veneration of saints and the practice of receiving gifts from Saint Nicholas as a "childish thing". He tried to replace gift-giving on 6 December with the Christ Child on 25 December. Since then, gift-giving has been moved to Christmas in many countries. Originally, Saint Nicholas' Day - not Christmas as the celebration of the birth of Jesus - was the day of the great gift-giving; in some countries, it still is today, for example, in the Netherlands.

It was only several centuries later that Catholic circles also adopted the Christ Child.

In addition to this custom, the "Einkehrbrauch" is still common in some families. This involves a person dressed up as Saint Nicholas coming to visit and bringing small gifts such as mandarins, gingerbread, walnuts and the like.

According to a YouGov survey, receiving presents on Saint Nicholas' Day is still common today as a precursor to the big gift-giving at Christmas. However, four out of five Germans believe that only a small gift should be given on Saint Nicholas Day. In concrete terms: 54 % of the population consider a Saint Nicholas gift to be worth less than 10 euros, and only a quarter would spend up to 20 euros on a gift. And what do they fill their boots with? 63 % of Germans who give filled Saint Nicholas boots as presents say they fill them with chocolate.

Saint Nicholas and his companion

From the 17th century onwards, the good-natured Saint Nicholas was given an adversary who had a different name depending on the region: Knecht Ruprecht, Krampus, Pelzmärtl, Sünnerklas, Klaubauf or Hans Muff. Originally, he was a figure who frightened children and was supposed to teach them to be more pious. According to another theory, Saint Nicholas' companion can be traced back to pagan rituals: he was said to travel in winter to drive away evil spirits. Over time, Knecht Ruprecht went from being a disciplinarian to being Saint Nicholas' helper who carried the presents in a sack.

Father Christmas - The rival to Saint Nicholas

Although outwardly they could almost be confused with a red coat, white beard and a jute sack full of presents, Saint Nicholas and Father Christmas have nothing to do with each other. The fact that the religious roots and significance of Saint Nicholas are becoming increasingly forgotten is also due to the figure of Father Christmas, which the advertising industry has placed in the spotlight. Consequently, many people think that the bearded old man with the pom-pom hat is Saint Nicholas. Dutch emigrants brought their Sinterklaas custom to America in the 17th century. Over time, Sinterklaas eventually became the American Father Christmas, known as Santa Claus, who, in the beginning, still had many different appearances.

Santa Claus only has external similarities to St. Nicholas.Saint Nicholas and Father Christmas only have certain visual similarities.

The Father Christmas we see in the media today can be traced back to Haddon Sundblom, who was commissioned by a well-known soft drink manufacturer in 1931 to invent a charismatic figure for their advertising. Since then, Father Christmas has triumphed all over the world. Yet Saint Nicholas still has an important message to share with us today, that of unselfish charity and willingness to help others.

The Klausenbaum

The custom of the so-called Klausenbaum has been known throughout Central Europe since the 15th century. Although its name refers to Saint Nicholas, it decorates the living room throughout the Christmas season and in some places even replaces the Christmas tree or the Advent wreath. It is a pyramid-shaped candlestick frame entwined with fir greenery. At the top, the Klausenbaum is decorated with a candle.

Other Saint Nicholas customs and significance in other countries

Saint Nicholas is not only celebrated in Germany. He is also very important in other countries.


One Saint Nicholas custom practised in Switzerland is the Klausjagen on 5 December. It goes back to a pagan custom in which the evil winter spirits were driven away with much fanfare.


Perchten in AustriaThey look terrifying: Perchten, who are supposed to drive away the winter demons.

In Austria, the dreaded Krampuses and Perchten are up to their mischief. They are supposed to drive the evil spirits out of the cities and thus restore order. Therefore, Krampus runs are organised around 6 December in various places in Austria, for instance, in St. Anton am Arlberg. At these events, the participants wear creepy masks and a devil's fur.


For the French, Saint Nicholas also comes on 6 December and brings small gifts and sweets. Especially in the east of France, Saint Nicholas is accompanied by the "père fouettard", the French equivalent of Knecht Rupprecht. In the Lorraine region, of which Saint Nicholas is the patron saint, a relic of the saint is kept in the church of Saint-Nicolas-de-Port, a small town not far from Nancy.


Sinterklaas is the name of Saint Nicholas in the Netherlands. He is the central figure of a festival for children that is celebrated in the Netherlands on 5 December with food, presents and songs. The Dutch version of Saint Nicholas arrives by steamship as early as mid-November for the Sinterklaas festival from Spain, where he lives for the rest of the year. Like the "traditional" Saint Nicholas, Sinterklaas always has his helpers with him - the zwarte Pieten (Black Peter).


Today, many Christians still make a pilgrimage to Demre in Turkey on the anniversary of Saint Nicholas' death and visit his grave. The Turks affectionately call Saint Nicholas "Noel Baba" - Father of Christmas.

FAQ: A brief summary of the most important facts about Saint Nicholas and his history

Why do we celebrate Saint Nicholas?

We celebrate Saint Nicholas Day in memory of Saint Nicholas of Myra, who lived in the 4th century and is said to have died on the 6th of December. Saint Nicholas is said to have worked many miracles during his life. He is one of the most popular saints of the Catholic Church. In Russia, only the Mother of God is more venerated than Saint Nicholas.

Where does the custom of hiding presents in children's shoes on Saint Nicholas Day come from?

Saint Nicholas is said to have saved poor girls from prostitution by hiding gold coins in their father's house. The custom of putting presents in children's shoes dates back to this Saint Nicholas story.

Legend or historical figure: Who was Saint Nicholas?

According to researchers, Saint Nicholas is based on two different men named Nicholas - one was Bishop Nicholas of Myra from what is now southern Turkey, who lived in the 4th century; the other was another bishop named Nicholas who also lived in this region in the 6th century - in Sion, not far from modern-day Antalya.

Was Saint Nicholas a Turk?

Nicholas was born in Patara in the Lycia region of present-day Turkey in the 3rd century and died in Myra, now Demre. However, the region was under Roman rule at the time.

Who invented Father Christmas?

A well-known fizzy drink manufacturer created the figure of Father Christmas, who is often confused with Saint Nicholas, and made him famous worldwide in the 1930s. He was penned by Haddon Sundblom.

Where is Saint Nicholas buried?

The bones of Saint Nicholas were brought from Demre to Bari in Southern Italy by Italian sailors in 1087. His tomb can still be seen today in the church of San Nicola in Bari.

Credits: main image: ©gettyimages/Neyya, image 2: ©gettyimages/Jose Luis Pelaez, image 3: ©gettyimages/fotofritz16.

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