The Feast of St. Nicholas, or St. Nicholas Day as it is commonly called, takes place each year on December 6th. In the United States we don’t really celebrate St. Nicholas Day, but in some European countries it is as highly anticipated as Christmas is here. St. Nicholas was a Bishop in Lycia (modern-day Turkey) during the fourth century A.D.
St. Nicholas Legends
One legend regarding his works and character is as follows: St. Nicholas heard that children in a neighboring village were impoverished and starving because of a famine. So, he instructed his own servants to harvest everything on his estate and they all traveled to the village and distributed the food to the starving children. No matter how much he gave away, there always seemed to be more in his sack. There are other versions of this story, but the common theme is that they all involve miraculous quantities of food provided by St. Nicholas. Because he was willing to give it away, God helped him to provide it.
Celebrating with Children
For our little celebration at home we have the children play the role of St. Nicholas and fill a bag with small treats and tokens for each other. Then they hang it on the doorknobs of their bedroom doors, to be opened in the morning. Europeans typically use shoes but I made bags because they are cleaner, and can be reused year after year (you can’t outgrow a felt bag). The little gifts for the bags usually include: A book, either about St. Nicholas or about the Christmas season; chocolate coins, or real coins of some special variety (these replicas from A Toy Garden are wonderful); a chocolate orange; and a candy cane. I mix it up a bit each year. We also make delicious German spice cookies—they’re even more special when made in a beautiful, hand-carved HOBI wooden cookie mold.
The St. Nicholas Center has an enormous amount of information about St. Nicholas’s life, his works, and ways that his feast day can be celebrated—it is well worth a visit. You might be surprised by how much our modern-day Christmas resembles this ancient feast day! And, beyond the fun, St. Nicholas is a wonderful model for how to be live a saintly life—he is the embodiment of love, kindness, and generosity.
On St. Nicholas’ Eve we like to read The Baker’s Dozen: A St. Nicholas Tale , written by Aaron Shepherd with pictures by Wendy Edelson. This beautifully illustrated children’s book, set in the Dutch colony that would become Albany, N.Y., tells the story of a baker, Van Amsterdam, who always gives his customers exactly what they pay for; no more, no less. That is, until he receives a special visitor who teaches him that sometimes by giving more, we get more in return.
Here are some of our favorite St. Nicholas books:
Don’t Forget a Tasty Snack!
There are lots of different recipes for the traditional St. Nicholas cookie eaten on his feast day. This one, adapted from a recipe provided by St. Nicholas Center, is my family’s favorite.
Speculatius (German Spice Cookies)
adapted from St. Nicholas Center
1 c shortening
2 c white sugar
4 eggs whole
3/4 tsp salt
2 tsp baking powder
4 c flour
4 tsp cinnamon
2 tsp allspice
2 tsp nutmeg
2 tsp ginger
2 tsp cloves
1. Preheat oven to 350° F.
2. Mix all ingredients in order, and turn the dough out onto a floured board. Knead in about one cup of additional flour or as much as you need until dough is no longer sticky and is easy to handle.
3. Wrap the dough in wax paper or plastic wrap until ready to use. Roll out small sections of dough at a time, keeping the remainder refrigerated.
4. If using cookie cutters to cut out small shapes, make sure to roll the dough out thinly—about 1/8 inch thickness is ideal.
5. If using a cooking mold or making larger cookies, roll the dough to about 1/4 inch thickness.
6. Bake cookies until golden brown (varies depending on size and thickness).