Updated: 1 day ago
When I was growing up I had no idea who St. Nicholas was. I was raised in a Christian family and we even went to a liturgical church but St. Nicholas? I had never heard of him!
Now, Santa Claus, the guy with the white beard and red suit? I knew all about him! He watched you when you were sleeping (creepy!) and he brought you presents on Christmas Eve. He rode in a sleigh with flying reindeer and you had to leave cookies out for him.
As a child, none of this made any sense to me. I would casually run into “Santa” at the convenience store. He was driving an old beat-up Chevy not a sleigh and there were no reindeer to be seen! How confusing! He was like the Easter Bunny or the Tooth Fairy, a weird cartoon character that would appear in physical form in a very cheap-looking costume at the mall or in front of Walmart. And I didn’t know why (I still don’t know why!), you had to dress up every year, go sit in his lap, and have your picture taken.
When I became a mom, I wanted no part in the Santa Claus tradition. My husband and I were going to tell our kids that Santa wasn’t real and leave it at that. I was relieved and excited when I found out that what I knew of Santa Claus was just a cartoon version and that there was a real person underneath, a real person named St. Nicholas.
The Real Saint Nick
St. Nicholas grew up in what is now Turkey. He was born to wealthy parents and at a young age, gave up his fortune to follow Jesus. He was a devout Christian who dedicated his life to spreading the gospel and helping those in need. He was made the Bishop of Myra in the 4th century and took part in the great church council of Nicaea which gave us the Nicene Creed – the one we recite every Sunday in Church! He was extremely concerned with the welfare of the poor and children and there are many legends about his good deeds.
The traditional story associated with St. Nicholas Day involves stockings. Legend has it that there was a poor man who had three daughters. The man had no money to get his daughters married, and he was worried about what would happen to them after his death. Saint Nicholas was passing through town when he heard the villagers talking about the girls and he wanted to help. He knew that the old man would never accept charity so he decided to help in secret. He waited until it was night and crept into the house with a bag of gold coins for each girl. As he was looking for a place to put three bags, he noticed stockings hung over the mantelpiece for drying. He put one bag in each stocking and left. When the girls and their father woke up the next morning, they found the bags of gold coins and they were able to get married. This led to the custom of children hanging stockings or putting out shoes, eagerly awaiting gifts from St. Nicholas on his feast day, December 6.
Feasting on Cookies on St. Nicholas Day
Most of the Christian world still remembers St. Nicholas and celebrates his life on December 6. He is usually depicted as a bishop of the church with his cope, miter, and crozier. When people dress up as St. Nicholas, they dress like a bishop and when they make cookies on his feast day, the cookies are cut out in the shape of a bishop with a staff. They celebrate his feast day by putting out stockings or shoes which are filled with chocolate candies that look like gold coins and oranges.
On the eve of St. Nicholas Day, our family made a traditional cookie from western Germany called Speculatius (recipe below). It is a crispy, buttery cookie with lots of cinnamon and it’s so delicious! We feasted on the cookies before bed and we read a sweet board book that explained who the real St. Nicholas was. After the children went to bed, my husband and I filled their stockings with little bags of chocolate coins wrapped in gold foil, an orange, and some other fun pieces of chocolate. My children were always so excited when they woke up! They would race to their stockings and eat their candy but never their orange! Before school, we would read the story of St. Nicholas again and pray, thanking God for a man like St. Nicholas who was willing to give up everything to follow Jesus and who dedicated his life to spreading the gospel and taking care of those in need.
Looking back now, I am so glad that we learned about St. Nicholas and so glad that my family celebrated his feast day. Celebrating St. Nicholas Day was such a great way to educate our children on the true role of St. Nicholas. He dedicated his life to following Jesus. He cared for children and the poor. He gave to people who were in need. He would never have wanted to be the focus of Christmas! St. Nicholas would point us all back to Jesus.
How to Make Speculatius (Recipe)
1 cup butter
1 cup shortening
2 cups brown sugar
1/2 cup sour cream
1/2 teaspoon soda
4 teaspoons cinnamon
1/2 teaspoon nutmeg
1/2 teaspoon cloves
4 1/2 cups sifted flour
Cream the butter, shortening, and sugar.
Add sour cream alternately with sifted dry ingredients.
Knead the dough and shape into rolls.
Wrap the rolls in plastic wrap and chill overnight.
Roll the dough very thin and cut into shapes.
Bake at 350 degrees for 10 to 15 minutes.