Wednesday, December 2, 2009

Some information about St. Nicholas Day (December 6)

The next few posts will include some fun ideas for celebrating St. Nicholas Day.  Most Americans may not be familiar with this holiday, which is the feast day of St. Nicholas, a Christian bishop in Myra (modern day Turkey) during the fourth century. Many consider him the predecessor of today's Santa Claus because of the way he anonymously helped many people in need.

St. Nicholas is a very well-known and popular saint throughout Europe.  In some countries, he is the one who delivers the holiday gifts, but not on Christmas Eve.  Instead, he appears in mid-November in the Netherlands and travels throughout the country for most of the next month, visiting schools, churches, stores and many other public locations.  In most countries he makes his secret visit to homes on the evening/late night of December 5, leaving little treats for children in their shoes.

I have shared one of my favorite resources for this holiday in the past, but it is certainly worth sharing again! I love the St. Nicholas Center website because it is filled with everything you could ever want to know about St. Nicholas:  his history, where and how his feast day is celebrated around the world,  activities and crafts you can do with a St. Nicholas theme, stories to read, recipes to make and much more!

Last year my kids and I took a drive over to Holland, Michigan, to experience St. Nicholas Eve in this Dutch-themed town. We were able to see Sinter Klaas (the Dutch name for St. Nicholas) ride into town on his white horse and parade down the main street.  The procession ended at a Dutch themed outdoor Christmas market at the end of the street, where children sang traditional Dutch songs to St. Nicholas.  Several Zwarte Piets (Black Peters) were mulling around in the crowd, handing out candy to all the kids.  I even had a chance to photograph my kids with St. Nicholas. I purchased some Dutch cookies from the baker in the marketplace, and we walked around this quaint little town to admire the lights and decorations, before returning to our hotel for the evening. 

Jimmy and Maria were a bit worried that St. Nicholas might not find them in the hotel, but the receptionist at the hotel assured the kids that Sinter Klaas ALWAYS stopped there.  Sure enough, they awoke in the morning to find that their shoes had been filled with the traditional treats:  a clementine, some chocolate coins wrapped in gold paper, a candy cane, and some Dutch cookies.  Sinter Klaas also left them a doll (like the one pictured at the right) and a book about St. Nicholas.

One thing I like about this holiday is that it doesn't have to be "over the top" like many of the celebrations in December.  Kids learn to appreciate little treats like clementines and foil-wrapped chocolate coins!  My kids know that the holiday isn't about the gifts they will receive, but rather about remembering a saint who played an important role in Christian history.  They both enjoy learning about other countries and customs so this holiday is a treat for them.

This year, we are going to attend the St. Nicholas celebration at Catechesis of the Good Shepherd atrium. One of the male parishioners always dresses up as St. Nicholas and the kids learn the nomenclature for the pieces of clothing that a bishop wears.  They realize St. Nicholas is a parishioner, and not some unknown person who appears out of nowhere.

Yet there is still something magical about the celebration for them. You can see it in their eyes, as he calls each of them to the front of the room and talks to them about their behavior over the past year.  He might gently reprimand "Johnny" for pulling the cat's tail, but then will compliment him on the great way he shares with his little sister. After his personalized pep talk with each child, he hands them a small fabric bag filled with the traditional treats, plus perhaps a St. Nicholas prayer card or ornament.

If you have ever watched the movie "Hans Brinker and the Silver Skates," you see a similar scene with Sinter Klaas at a party in Holland.  (Incidentally, that would be a great movie to watch on December 6!  Your library might have it or you can purchase it online from Amazon.  See the notes and links at the end of this article.)

If you have never celebrated St. Nicholas Day before, why not try to incorporate it into your holiday season?  As I mentioned in Monday's blog entry, you don't need to do alot to make these Advent celebrations special. Kids enjoy even the smallest touches, like serving Dutch Pepernoten cookies (find the recipe here on the St. Nicholas Center website) or reading a book about St. Nicholas on the eve of his feast day. (Your library will probably have at least one book on this saint, or you can download stories from the internet.)  Of course, stock up on clementines and chocolate coins to add to those shoes, which the kids should place outside their room doors on December 5!

Perhaps you could find a church, school, or public activity in your area where St. Nicholas appears. The St. Nicholas Center keeps a list of  St. Nicholas appearances and activities by country.  Although it is not comprehensive, it may give you some ideas.  Search through their listed activities by clicking here to go to the St. Nicholas Center website.

I will be sharing another great movie for St. Nicholas Day this evening, so please bookmark this blog and come back later today!

About the "Hans Brinker" movie:
There are four versions of this movie.  Two of them are easiest to locate: one is a 1962 Disney-produced film with Rony Zeaner and Carin Rossby.  The other is a 1969 musical made for NBC TV with Eleanor Park and Richard Basehart.  I have both films and they are good, although I prefer the second version a bit more.  It  isn't as "Disneysque" and, I think, better portrays the difficulties of  the Brinker family after their father suffers a head injury. It isn't as commercialized and may seem a bit hokey by today's standards, but it does take you back to 19th century Holland. However, both films have their merits, which is why our family library includes each version!  You can find out more about the films by clicking on this Amazon link:  Hans Brinker or the Silver Skates

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