"Have you been good boys and girls?" Nicholas asks the kids, who obviously know the right answer to the question. In addition to being a religious holiday, the feast of St. Nicholas, celebrated on December 6, is also observed by children around the world - in a variety of ways - even if not all of them know who Nicholas was.
Also called Nikolaos of Myra, the figure now referred to as St. Nicholas was a bishop in the fourth century in present-day Turkey. According to legend, he was the son of wealthy parents and gave his inheritance to the poor. St. Nicholas is still remembered in Turkey. In the Russian Orthodox Church, Nicholas is one of the major portraits on a church's iconostasis.
In the sixth century, a cult spread from Constantinople concerning St. Nicholas. Later he would also be honored in Greece and Slavic countries. It wasn't until the 10th century that German regions commemorated Nicholas. Many think Kaiser Otto II's wife, Theophanu, brought the tradition of St. Nicholas with her from Turkey to Germany. A plastic statue of Santa replaced St. Nicholas in Myra.
The tradition of giving gifts to children on the feast of St. Nicholas developed in the 15th century. It started with putting sweets, nuts and fruits into ships made out of paper, as Nicholas was the patron saint of sailors. Now gifts are put in shoes or boots. In Germany, St. Nicholas makes personal visits to children.
In many countries, good-natured St. Nicholas travels with a meaner companion. Knecht Ruprecht (the servant Ruprecht), as he is known in Germany, is there to frighten kids into good behavior. Such saintly "helpers" are customary in France (Pere Fouettard), the Netherlands (Zwarte Piet), Switzerland (Schmutzli), as well as Austria and parts of southern Germany, where Krampus scares kids straight.
Church reformer Martin Luther did away with St. Nicholas giving gifts to kids. The gifts, he said, should come from the baby Jesus at Christmas - not weeks before from a saint. But what might have worked in the year 1535 has faded to history as Christians and non-Christians in Germany celebrate the feast of St. Nicholas - in addition to Christmas.
St. Nicholas is not to be confused with Santa Claus. Don't be fooled by the shared red outfit and bushy white beard. Santa Claus and his team of reindeer are an invention of the soda company Coca Cola and date back to 1931. While their outside appearances are similar, St. Nicholas fans maintain one personifies generosity and compassion while the other embodies consumption and commerce.
Coca Cola isn't the only company to lean on Father Christmas. A motorcycle company in Vietnam, home to 6 million Catholics, advertises its bikes using the cherry elf. The Philippines is the only Asian country with more Catholics, and Santa Claus and Christmas trees are well-loved there, too.
There are numerous events around the world featuring the man in the red suit and white beard. The World Santa Claus Congress draws hundreds of Santas to Copenhagen every year. The meeting is held in the July, well ahead of Santa's toy-making busy time of the year. And it's becoming a popular meeting spot for many Mrs. Clauses as well.
Even Father Christmas has his opponents. A Catholic German aid group, Bonifatiuswerk, has organized Santa-free zones for the last 10 years to increase people's awareness of St. Nicholas rather than Santa Claus.
For most kids, it's the presents - not who brings them - that are crucial when Christmas comes around. It's less important whether it's Santa on a sleigh pulled by flying reindeer, St. Nicholas leaving gifts in shoes or three wise men in January. By the way, St. Nicholas died in Myra on December 6. The exact year is unknown.
From St. Nicholas to Santa Claus: traditions with St. Nick.