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Who was Nicholas and why are we celebrating him?

St. Nicholas Day is just around the corner. Children in particular look forward to the gift carrier in the cold season. But where does the custom come from and who was this Santa Claus anyway? In our post you will learn everything about St. Nicholas, his dreaded companions and the holiday.

History about St. Nicholas

Santa Claus rewards the good children every year. He comes in the night when everyone is asleep, secretly puts his presents in his empty boots and just as secretly disappears again over the fireplace. Many people have this image in mind when they think of Santa Claus. However, only a few people know that the legend of Nicholas was a real person. Who was he now, this Nikolaus? And what about the boots and the fireplace?

Who was Nicholas?

According to the Church, St. Nicholas Day and the veneration of the saint are associated with the life of St. Nicholas of Myra. Born in the third century in Lycia - a region southwest of Antalya - Nicholas was ordained a priest at the age of just 19. As a man of faith he was driven to the large city of Myra (today: Demre), where he was ordained bishop in 325 AD. Nicholas of Myra performed many miracles at this time and, as a bishop, was particularly known for his mercy. In the Orthodox Church, like Saint Martin, he is therefore praised as a helper in need. An official canonization by the church never took place. Saint Nicholas is known as the so-called popular saint, who is worshiped by and through the people.

Historians, on the other hand, assume that two or more life stories merged when the legend of Saint Nicholas was created. In addition to the person of the bishop of Myra from the fourth century, an abbot from Sion is said to be involved in the cult of worship. According to the scientists, this too was called Nikolaus and lived in Asia Minor in the sixth century. Later, the religious as bishop of Pinora - a town near Myra - was also venerated as a benefactor.

When did Nicholas live?

Answering the question about the exact lifetimes of Saint Nicholas is not that easy. Because depending on the source, there are different birth and death years of the Bishop of Myra. However, it is likely that the bishop, venerated by the Church as Saint Nicholas, was born between 270 and 290 AD. The episcopal ordination in Myra finally took place in 325 AD and is considered documented. Nicholas would have been between 35 and 55 years old when he was appointed bishop. The year of death also varies depending on the research work, which is why the year of death fluctuates between AD 345 and AD 351. Even more important than the year, however, is the day the bishop died. This is commonly known as December 6th. The day of the bishop's death is celebrated today in memory of his good deeds and still forms the actual origin of St. Nicholas' Day.

Where does Santa Claus come from?

Nikolaus von Myra was probably born in Patara, a city on the Mediterranean coast of Lycia in what is now Turkey. The ancient city now belongs to the province of Antalya, but today only serves as a historical site for interested tourists. After being ordained bishop, Nicholas spent his lifetime in Myra, now known as the city of Demre in Turkey. Both Patara and Myra were then part of the Roman and later Byzantine Empire, where Christianity prevailed as a form of religion.

The bones of the saint were first buried in Myra, but later transported to Italy. As early as the sixth century, Nikolaus had his own St. Nicholas Church built in Myra, which is still a place of pilgrimage for many pilgrims to this day.

The holiday: why, when, where and how is Nicholas celebrated?

Saint Nicholas is one of the most venerated saints in Christianity. It has different customs in each country. Due to his high level of awareness and widespread veneration, the proposal to use St. Nicholas as the patron saint of Europe was examined at times. But for what deeds do we celebrate this saint so special? And why is it so popular with children?

Why do we celebrate Nicholas?

Saint Nicholas is still considered a savior and gift giver to this day. During his lifetime he is said to have won over the people especially through his mercy and goodness. To this day, many legends and myths revolve around the deeds of the former bishop.

One of the best-known legends of the bishop tells a story about three young women whom Nicholas saved from prostitution. The poor father of the girls did not have the money to marry his daughters. Without seeing any way out, he wanted to send his daughters out into the streets. When Nikolaus found out about this, he helped the poor man by throwing gold pieces through the chimney of the house at night. The money ended up in the girls' socks hung to dry by the fireplace, and so he saved them from their fate. That is why many children still hang their socks on the fireplace for Santa Claus or put an empty shoe in front of the door.

But other legends of Nicholas also let him act primarily as a patron for children and young people. Saint Nicholas is said to have protected the city of Myra after being robbed by pirates. In addition to grain, the pirates also abducted children in order to keep them as slaves. He would have saved the children through payments from the church treasury.

According to these stories, Saint Nicholas is above all a patron saint for children. But seamen, merchants and fishermen also revere him for his healing deeds. According to historical traditions, the Bishop of Myra is said to have always graciously and generously distributed gifts to the poor. This exemplary behavior is commemorated each year by the custom in December. This makes St. Nicholas the most important messenger in the run-up to Christmas.

December 5th or 6th: When is St. Nicholas' Day?

St. Nicholas' Day goes back to the day the Bishop of Myra died and is celebrated on December 6th. So far, Christendom is in agreement. But when Santa Claus comes to the children is not that easy to answer. Even in Germany, customs vary from region to region and within families. It is true that on the evening of December 5th the shoes are placed in front of the door, which are also filled for good children the next morning, but the time of the visit of St. Nicholas with his golden book can be argued.

In many families, St. Nicholas comes home late in the evening of December 5th, while in others he does not visit the families personally until the evening of December 6th.

Where is Nicholas celebrated?

In most of the Christian countries, St. Nicholas Day is celebrated as a day of remembrance. Although December 6th is not a public holiday in Germany, the St. Nicholas custom is one of the most important traditions in the run-up to Christmas. While St. Nicholas gives presents to the good children in Germany on this day, the naughty children are punished by his terrifying helper Knecht Ruprecht. The custom is interpreted differently around the world. Here some examples:

Austria and parts of Bavaria

As in Germany, there is also a feared helper on the side of Nicholas who punishes the naughty children in Austria: the Krampus. A horror figure that goes back to a pre-Christian tradition and symbolizes evil. In Austria and Bavaria, the Krampus mingled with the Perchten tradition very early on, which is supposed to drive away the evil spirits of winter.


In Switzerland, children usually call Santa Claus "Santa Claus", who, like Santa Claus, gives the children sweets on December 6th. The "Samichlaus" is accompanied by the "bearded Schmutzli" who takes on the same role as the German servant Ruprecht.


In Luxembourg there is even no school on St. Nicholas Day for pre-school and primary school students. Because then the so-called "Klees'chen", an older man with white hair, is received by the children. In some places the winter messenger is even brought ashore by boat. The "Klees'chen" is accompanied by the "Houseker", who corresponds to the Knecht Ruprecht. Similar to Santa Claus, not only the boot is placed in front of the door, but also a plate with biscuits, which should serve to strengthen the clover.


In Italy, people celebrate what is probably the biggest festival of St. Nicholas. Because after the death of the Holy Bishop, the bones are said to have been transferred to the city of Bari in Italy in the eleventh century. A large celebration is held in honor of the saint on the nearby sea on the city limits.


St. Nicholas Day is also celebrated in the neighboring country of Germany. It is even more important there than Christmas. However, the Dutch receive their “Sinterklaas” at the end of November. “Sinterklaas” arrives in the Netherlands on a steamboat with gifts. The spectacle is even broadcast live on television. The gift delivery is known as “Pakjesavond” (package evening) and takes place on the evening of December 5th. The Dutch Nikolaus is accompanied by the "Zwarte Piet" (black Peter), who takes over the duties of Knecht Ruprecht.


St. Nicholas is the most important national patron in Russia. Nevertheless, St. Nicholas does not bring the presents there, nor is his arrival celebrated there on December 6th. Instead, Djed Moros (Father Frost) brings the children their gifts. Father Frost originally comes from a fairy tale, but looks like Santa Claus. Djed Moros is not accompanied by an evil figure, as in this country, but by his granddaughter Snjegurotschka (Snow Maiden). The gifts will be distributed on the so-called Jolka Festival on Silverster Eve.

What is the difference between Nicholas and Santa Claus?

The difference between Santa Claus and Nicholas is big. Because actually Santa Claus - apart from a similar appearance - has little in common with Santa Claus.

While St. Nicholas Day does not play a role as a Catholic day of remembrance in the United States and December 6 is not a special day either, the person of the white-bearded Santa Claus is exaggerated, especially at Christmas.

Santa Claus is a fictional character and an American product of the consumer industry. Santa Claus, the cover picture of many large corporations at Christmas, is extensively celebrated there. He brings the presents at Christmas, drives a sleigh with reindeer and is supported by many elves in his work on the North Pole.

But where does the resemblance of the American Santa Claus and our Santa Claus come from? The answer to that lies in the immigration of Dutch people to the US. Because when they moved overseas, they also brought their custom to the European “Sinterklaas” with them. The long-bearded, gray-haired man that the Dutch celebrated on December 6th was quickly converted into Santa Claus in the USA. For this reason, both Santa Claus and Nicholas have their origins in the person of the Bishop of Myra.

Nikolaus: What does he look like and what does he say to the children?

Shortly before Remembrance Day on December 6th, you cannot avoid contact with Santa Claus. Because many department stores, winter markets or schools hold a meeting with the bishop. The shrewd child's eye sometimes notices that St. Nicholas looks very different.

What does Santa look like?

Since Nicholas originally goes back to the Bishop of Myra, he wears a magnificent red and / or purple bishop's robe. His head is covered by a large bishop's cap and he can legitimize his status with his golden bishop's staff. In addition, due to his old age and wisdom, St. Nicholas is usually depicted with gray hair and a long gray beard. In many cases, Santa Claus also carries a golden book with him from which he can read a short story about each child.

But why don't all Santa Clauses look like this? The answer to that is simple. In many cases, St. Nicholas is equated with Santa Claus. The red Santa hat and the classic velvet robe do not represent Santa Claus, but the American Santa Claus. There is also a variant that shows Santa Claus in a blue robe - but here too, Santa Claus is actually not represented. The blue Santa Claus goes back to the model of "Father Frost" and is supposed to symbolize the forces of winter with the blue robe.

What does St. Nicholas say to the children?

Nicholas carries a golden book with him. It serves as the saint's source of information to see if the children were particularly good again this year. On the one hand, it says what the child has done particularly well this year, but also what it still needs to improve. In addition to hobbies or special characteristics of the child, social interaction is also assessed. Nicholas is happy to distribute praise for the child's special abilities, good grades and good behavior towards other children. But also things that the child can do better in the next year are addressed by Santa Claus. At the end of the day, each child receives a present that St. Nicholas brought with them.

What do you give?

Despite the shrewd children who only put the biggest shoes in front of the door on Santa Claus, small gifts for Santa Claus are particularly popular. Sweets and other great little things are often given away, which do not represent too great a financial burden before Christmas. Here are a few gift ideas for your loved ones:

The classics:

  • Fruits like apples, oranges and tangerines
  • nuts
  • Cookies (preferably homemade)
  • Chocolate of any kind

Gift ideas for the cold season:

  • Books or book vouchers
  • Different types of tea
  • Delicious chocolates
  • Cosmetics for the winter time

Despite the ever increasing consumption, it is important not to give too many material things straight away. Because St. Nicholas' Day is a day of remembrance that honors the mercy and good deeds of a bishop.

If you still don't have a gift idea, you can write a wish list to Santa Claus together with the children. You can then give it to the Christmas post office and send it to Santa Claus. There the hardworking bishop answers more than 21,000 letters from children every year and replies to each child's greetings. All information about the Christmas letters can be obtained from Deutsche Post.

Post picture: © hansslegers / iStock.com

Cover picture: © AlexRaths / iStock.com