St. Nicholas's Day is supposedly the saint's birthday, but in many parts of Europe, it is also, to some extent or another, a gift-giving holiday for kids. Although the celebration is best-known in its Dutch form, Sinterklaas, the simpler German form is probably more likely to be celebrated in North America.
I celebrated St. Nicholas's Day, December 6th, as a child, and continue to celebrate it as an adult. To me, it was always a wonderful opportunity for a few early stocking-stuffer-like gifts, which can be really helpful in assuaging a kid's Christmas-related impatience (or, you know, that of a blogger).
How did we celebrate? I would leave out a pair of shoes, and in the morning, St. Nicholas would have left me a small present or two -- an ornament, a pair of socks, some candy, a tiny stuffed animal.
Tonight is St. Nicholas's Eve. Pick up some baking materials and small gifts after work, polish your shoes, and join me after the break for some ideas!
The Dutch form of the holiday can go on for a while, since it's essentially the familiar Santa Claus tradition done slightly earlier and at greater length. (St. Nicholas's Day is the beginning of the holiday season in most of Europe.) In the last few weeks leading up to Sinterklaas, children leave their shoes out with a wish list and, sometimes, treats for St. Nicholas and his helpers.
Small gifts are left in the shoes, then the wait begins for the big day itself, December 5th (or 6th, in Belgium.) That's the day when St. Nicholas comes back with the presents, which will probably be left in a plastic sack at the front door.
Another Dutch tradition is to give gifts designed to amaze and delight, called "surprises." Pronounced "suh-PREE-zes," the idea is to use your cleverness to make a gift look like something else, and sometimes to perform relatively elaborate pranks that are designed just to make the "victims" happy.
Telling children about the Dutch version of the holiday is probably a good recipe for winding up with a kid who thinks he's getting two Wii's in December, rather than just the one on the 25th. Many Americans already have a holiday for major gifts, coming up in just under three weeks.
Instead, why not try the stripped-down German observance of St. Nicholas's Eve and Day? It has been popular in the US in any area with a lot of German immigrants. Shoes are put out, and when the owners wake up on the morning of the 6th, small presents have magically appeared in the shoes. (Or on them, near them, on a nearby table, etc. Some presents require creativity. And I hope you understand that when I say "magically," I mean, "In the same way that presents from Santa are 'magical': a parent or another person in the house makes them happen.)
You can always incorporate any elements of the Dutch celebration that you like, creating a hybrid that suits you.
Although you'll probably want to use your best shoes, you should also make sure they're clean before you put them out. Here's a shoe polishing tutorial.
What should you leave out for a saint? Well, unlike Santa, he has only a horse or donkey to carry around his deliveries, so he always appreciates a carrot or hay for his transportation. Cookies would not go amiss. It's Nicholas's birthday, after all.
Put these items in a napkin in the shoe.
Anything small will work. "Small" does not necessarily mean "palm of the hand"; I've received music and movies in my shoes in the past. "Small" means that a bicycle, a life-size giraffe, or anything you would consider a major gift is probably inappropriate. Stocking stuffers are the way to go. Chocolates are fine, but so are fruits and nuts.
Traditional gifts include a chocolate or cookie letter in the shape of the recipient's first initial, as well as treats made with marzipan (sweetened almond paste). Spiced cookies similar to gingerbread, called speculaas, are also eaten.
If you would rather celebrate the German way, why not try Lebkuchen, a delicious cookie-like spice cake that is often made near the holidays? A few recipes to try:
If you don't have time to make something, see if there is a World Market store in your area. At this time of year, they usually have plenty of European cookies and candy. For future reference, next year, you can try the Sinterklaas Shop or Dutch Market.
Bad children are said to receive coal or salt, but you wouldn't do that to your child... would you?
I hope that, now that you've read this article and some of the linked material, you're ready to make some spice cookies, and to spiff up your shoes! St. Nicholas's Day is a wonderful excuse to make anyone with whom you share living space feel a little bit special, during a time of year that can be hectic and exhausting. Even if you don't observe the religious aspects of the holiday, it can still be fun to make it a tradition in your home.
At the St. Nicholas Center site, you'll find ideas from other families who already have.