Children in Europe get very excited on the evening of December 5th. They do something their parents for once don’t have to remind them of:
They clean their boots and shoes! And polish them until they shine.
Why would they do that? Only on this particular day, December the 5th? It is a tradition. Once upon a time, way back in the fourth century, there was a kind Bishop with the name Nicholas. He was the Bishop of Myra, now called Anatolia in Turkey. He had the gift of bringing children back to life or cure terrible ailments. He loved children. He gave them little gifts or secretly dropped coins into their shoes. After he died on December 6th 346 he was canonized and became a Saint, a Saint to protect the children. The people had revered Bishop Nicholas because he was so kind to their children. They celebrated his life on that day. To keep Bishop Nicholas, who was now Saint Nicholas, ‘alive’ in the minds of their children they would put little gifts or sweets into their cleaned shoes. If the children were unruly or had not been good they would put some dry branches or a stick into their shoe to remind them of a forthcoming punishment from Saint Nicholas. But Bishop Nicholas had never punished the children. The dry branches or the stick were the invention of the parents.
The tradition for children cleaning and polishing their shoes on the evening of December 5th has lived on, especially in Germany, Austria and Poland. Saint Nicholas is known by other names, – in German speaking countries it is Sankt Nikolaus; in Switzerland it is Samichlaus; in the Netherlands it is Sinterklaas and there are many more. The American Santa Claus or the Father Christmas in the UK is derived from the good old Saint Nicholas. For commercial reasons they now turn up at Christmas, Christ’s birthday. He is depicted a little differently in each country where the morning of December 6th is anticipated by the children and they look forward to find something in their shoes. They do what children have done for hundreds of years:
They clean their boots and shoes and put them outside their door. Some children are told to just put one shoe out in order not to look greedy. I can tell you from my own experience that we always put both shoes out to show Saint Nicholas how well we have cleaned them. But it is true there was only something in one of them. I remember, later in life, when I had no small children around and I would slip into my shoes or sometimes even my slippers in front of my bed my toes would touch something unusual: A wrapped delicious piece of chocolate or nougat and the warm rush of surprise would be flooding my body.
Did I believe it was Saint Nicholas who brought it? Yes, naturally. Sometimes I had taken over Saint Nicholas’ deeds and sometimes I think my teenagers had also been hired as helpers. Saint Nicholas’ Day is not replacing Santa Claus at Christmas at all. Not in most countries.
Give it a try. Tell your small children about Saint Nicholas and have them put their cleaned and shined shoes out on the evening of December 5th and enjoy their excitement on the morning of the 6th! It is magic to find something in one of your shoes…especially when you are not anticipating it.