St. Nicholas and the Boots
Stars and Stripes December 1, 2023
On December 6th, kids all over the German-speaking world will be waking up to run and check their boots. Inside, if they have been good, they may find a small gift, some coins or chocolate. Naughty kids, or their parents, may find a stick.
St. Nicholas of Myra was a bishop who lived on the coast of modern-day Turkey in what was the Roman Empire in the 4th century AD. He is known for his anonymous generosity to the poor.
In one story, he helps a poor family with three daughters in need of dowry money, without which their marriage arrangements could not be made. In the culture of the time that meant a life of poverty or possible slavery awaited the girls. St. Nicholas is said to have secretly placed bags of gold in their shoes by the door, or maybe it was tossed in through the window, or possibly, he aimed for their stockings hung to dry near the smoldering fire. Whichever method he used, St. Nicholas saved them from their wretched fate.
Sound familiar? American traditions of “stockings hung by the chimney with care” come from the older European traditions surrounding St. Nicholas. Over time, and over the pond, that tradition and the saint were shifted to Christmas day instead of his feast day on Dec. 6. While that shift is slowly happening in Europe, for most German kids the, it is the Christ Child who comes bearing gifts on Christmas Eve, while St. Nicholas keeps his own day.
The night before St. Nicholas’s Day, kids and adults will wash and tidy their boots so they are presentable. They place them by the front door, outside a bedroom or even outside the house. St. Nicholas is said to come secretly at night. He will sometimes put chocolate wrapped to look like gold coins into the boots, just like he did for the girls. Actual coins and chocolate St. Nicholas figures are popular, too. It is also pretty funny when Dad or Mom gets a switch for being ‘naughty.’
In many places, St. Nicholas visits local towns and Christmas markets on the 5th and 6th of December. He is often accompanied by one of his traditional assistants, like Knecht Ruprecht in Germany, Black Peter in the Netherlands or Krampus in the Alps.
Adding St. Nicholas’s feast day to your family traditions is a fun way to get into the Christmas season.