St. Nicholas' Day celebrates the feast day of Nicholas. He was born in the village of Patara, in Lycia, Turkey in the year 271, and died on the 19th of December 343 according to the Julian Calendar. That day, in the Gregorian Calendar, translates into the 6th of December.
Nicholas, the son of wealthy Christian parents, exhibited religious tendencies early on in his life. The parents died of an epidemic when Nicholas was still a child, so his uncle, Nicholas, the bishop of Patara, took the boy to live with him. The bishop guided his nephew into the priesthood, and the future saint eventually was installed as a bishop himself.
Since his earthly death, St. Nicholas has been the patron saint of children, sailors, fishermen, the falsely accused, prostitutes, repentant thieves and many others.
St. Nicholas' Day developed throughout Europe as a day of gift-bringing for children. The secular nature of the day was differentiated from Christmas, which remained a religious day.
The traditions that were celebrated on St. Nicholas' Day were, over time, transferred to Christmas; and the personality and attributes of St. Nicholas were eventually applied to Santa Claus.
The impetus for Nicholas to be the patron saint of children was explained in the April, 1777 issue of the Gent's Magazine. Two boys had been sent to Athens for an education; they were intending on calling upon Bishop Nicholas. They arrived late in the day, and decided to stay the night at an inn on the way. The landlord coveted the boys' belongings, and so in the night he murdered the two young fellows. He cut the bodies into pieces, salted them, and placed them in a pickling tub with some pork that was already there. The entire scene came to Bishop Nicholas in a vision. He immediately went to the inn and called the innkeeper to attend him. He recounted the events of the night before, and the innkeeper realizing that he could not hide his crime, confessed all. He begged the Bishop to intercede with Almighty God on his behalf that he received a pardon for the sin he committed. Bishop Nicholas not only prayed to God for the man's sins, but also pleaded that God restore the two boys. Hardly had he completed his prayer, when the pieces of the boys put themselves back together, and the children stood before the Bishop whole and sound. Thereafter, Nicholas adopted, as his emblems, the images of naked children and tub.
A tradition stated that there was a poor man who had three daughters. The father, through the necessity to obtain money by any means, made the decision to prostitute the daughters. St. Nicholas being aware of the intentions of the father, quietly threw a bag filled with money into the man's window at night, thereby avoiding the need for the daughters to prostitute themselves. This tradition accounts for the fact that Saint Nicholas was the patron saint for prostitutes. The tradition also explains how the belief that St. Nicholas brings gifts to children got started. Even though the windows of a house be shut tight, the gifts somehow appear inside on the morning of St. Nicholas' Day.
The custom of hanging stockings on the fireplace mantle, and finding them filled with candies and small toys the next morning rose out of a tradition that the nuns in a convent in France started. On the eve of St. Nicholas' Day the nuns would hang a silk stocking on the handles of their doors. In the morning, they would arise to find the stockings filled with sweetmeats, candies and other small items of food. The ladies would then gather together and combine all of their bounties into a general feast to celebrate the day and honor the saint, whom they were convinced had provided the treats.
It is customary, on St. Nicholas' Day, to eat Speculaas cookies, a delicacy from the Netherlands. This cookie is a spicy treat cut into shapes related to the Saint: coins, ships, tubs and so forth. They are painted in bright colored icing.
Following are two recipes for the traditional cookies served during the St. Nicholas Day holiday.
4 cups flour
1 cup sweet butter (warmed to room temperature)
2 cups dark brown sugar
rind of 1 lemon (grated)
2 teaspoons cinnamon
1 teaspoon ground nutmeg or mace
1/2 teaspoon ground cloves
1/8 teaspoon ground ginger
1/8 teaspoon cardamom
1/8 teaspoon salt
1 teaspoon baking powder
1 egg white (beaten), if desired
In a large bowl, cream the butter with the sugar until fluffy.
Add the eggs one at a time, blending thoroughly after each addition.
Add the lemon rind.
Sift the spices and salt with the flour and baking powder, and stir gradually into the butter mixture.
Wrap in waxed paper or plastic wrap and chill for several hours or overnight.
On a floured surface, roll out the dough to a thickness of about 1/8 inch, or for larger figures to about 1/4 inch.
Cut into shapes (Bishop, Bishop's staff, Bishop's mitre, ship, coins, etc.)
Bake at 350 degrees until lightly browned.
When cool, mix together icing ingredients and paint cookies as desired.
1-3/4 cups self-rising flour
7 tablespoons butter
1/2 cup cane sugar
2 tablespoons milk
1 egg white (beaten)
zest of 1/2 orange (finely grated)
3 teaspoons pumpkin pie spice
Preheat the oven to 347 degrees F (175 degrees C)
Grease a baking sheet
Mix all of the ingredients in a large bowl and knead into a dough ball.
Cover the dough ball with plastic wrap and set aside for an hour.
Flour the work surface and press the dough ball into an even, flat sheet about 1/4 inch in thickness.
Cut shapes out of the sheet of dough and place onto the greased baking sheet.
Brush with egg white and sprinkle some brown sugar and flaked almonds onto each cookie shape.
Bake for about 25 minutes or until the cookies turn lightly brown.