This Italian’s Guide to St. Nicholas Day

religious stockingsYesterday was the first day of the Advent Season. We lit the first purple candle on our advent wreath, sang verses one and two of O Come, O Come, Emmanuel at Mass, and have already finished decorating our home for Christmas. That is, after all, what the Advent Season, is all about. It’s the preparation for Christmas. Parents everywhere are baking and shopping, and if there are young ones in the home, lists are being made for Santa’s visit. But wait! Didn’t we forget something? Christmas is actually Christ’s Mass, and there isn’t really a Santa Claus Day, but there is a St. Nicholas Day, and it’s this week. Due to the commercialism of Christmas, it’s been overshadowed, but there are customs and traditions that are still alive, some of which I’ve kept going in my own family.

Nicolas was born to wealthy parents in land under Greek control. His parents died when he was very young, and he followed Christ’s teachings to give his wealth to the poor, giving the whole of his inheritance to help the sick, needy and suffering. At a young age he became Bishop of Myra, and was known for his generosity, particularly to children and sailors. He was persecuted and imprisoned for his faith, and finally released when the prisons were too full of religious prisoners to hold actual criminals. He attended the Council of Nicaea in 325, and finally died in Myra on December 6, 343, where he was buried in the cathedral. In the spring of 1087, his remains were moved to Bari, Italy for easier pilgrimage access. The Basilica di San Nicola was built over his crypt, allowing tourists to pay homage to the saint who assisted children, sailors, prisoners, famine victims, and others in need.

In Italy today on St. Nicholas Eve, children put a plate on the table with a letter to St. Nicholas. They promise to be good in the coming year, and in exchange they ask for gifts from the saint. When St. Nicholas visits overnight, he reads the letters and fills some of the requests. He’ll also leave candies and cookies on the plate for the children to wake to. On St. Nicholas Day, grandfathers will sometimes dress up like St. Nicholas and hand out the presents. Good children will get their gifts, but naughty children will get sugar candy that looks like lumps of coal.

St. Nicholas is the patron saint of young women wanting to get married. There is a special ritual in Bari for young ladies hoping for a husband. They go to the Basilica and drop a note to St. Nicholas in a special box, along with three coins. In Sicily, young ladies will wear traditional dress on December 5 and 6 and sing special songs to him.

My daughter isn’t old enough to look for a husband, and I wouldn’t expect her to sing for one or drop notes in a box. We’re going to do things the American way, I think. But we have adopted the celebration of St. Nicholas Day, because, if as Americans we can commercialize Christmas, then as Italians and as Catholics we can celebrate the life of the patron saint of children.

We have special “religious” stockings in our house. These are our St. Nicholas Day stockings. On December 6, our kids know to look in them for little gifts. Also, there is always fruit in them, usually an orange or an apple. I’m not sure when or how that tradition started. I think it had to do with my grandfather and there always being fruit on the holiday table, but for St. Nicholas day, there is always fruit.

To help the less fortunate, St. Nicholas used to throw bags of money through windows and fireplaces of people’s homes. Those bags would land in the socks that they’d hung to dry or in the shoes that were warming on the hearth. That’s how the stocking tradition began. And that’s why we give our St. Nicholas gifts in the religious stockings at our house.

We don’t make nearly the production out of St. Nicholas Day that we do out of Christmas. (After all, it’s not Christ’s Mass.) But we do celebrate it. It’s a nice reminder of where our family came from. This time of year is hard for my family because we don’t get to spend it with our extended family. Celebrating this holiday is just another way we can keep family traditions alive. Perhaps it’s a tradition that you’d like to start with your family.

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6 thoughts on “This Italian’s Guide to St. Nicholas Day

  1. I love these posts where you shed a little light on what’s Behind all these traditions we, mostly, follow blindly. Very nice. One of the things I loved about living in Panama is that, while it is not strictly speaking a Catholic country, the church has certainly influenced the culture of the country. St. Nicholas Day was celebrated as a religious holiday with a procession/parade starting and ending at the doors of the church. There’s something right and good about that.

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    • I love that in your comments I’m getting to know more about you, as well. I had no idea you ever lived in Panama. And yes, I agree that it is a lovely tradition that the celebration starts and ends at the doors of the church. This world is full of different cultures, yet even the different customs are often based on similar beliefs. I love this exchange of ideas and knowledge, which helps us all learn and brings us closer together. I have a Syrian friend who has embraced some Christmas traditions because she enjoys the joyous way we celebrate the holiday. That never would have happened if we hadn’t opened our doors and shared our experiences.

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