Why St. Nicholas Day Is The Holiday Tradition My Kids Will Always Remember

St. Nicholas boots
PHOTO: GETTY IMAGES

For those who have heard of St. Nicholas Day, and for those who haven’t, the thought of yet another holiday to celebrate might sound daunting. While that can be true, I’ve found that the message of the saint who inspired Santa Claus is worth celebrating, particularly when looking for ways to simplify the season. It might sound counterintuitive, but hear me out.

I’ll admit that as a parent it’s hard to keep the balance of Christmas in check, as it oftentimes feels like a losing battle once the gift-buying, menu-planning, and house-decorating season starts knocking. I’m sure there are some who find themselves with perpetually grateful spirits and have no problem keeping the heart of the season at the core of all they do, but I am decidedly in the “work in progress” camp.

Though it seems a lofty (dare I say, unattainable) goal, trying to focus on less materialistic aspects of the Christmas season is always the aim. For our family, that means weekly lighting of our Advent wreath (well, we’ve been known to forget a week or two), a small but (mostly) meaningful collection of gifts under the tree, and lots and lots of discussions on why we celebrate Christmas in the first place. Even with all of this effort, if you ask my children what Christmas is about, there is a 50/50 chance all roads will lead back to presents.

A few years ago, I decided to start celebrating St. Nicholas Day as a way to better explain the role of Santa Claus and, probably most importantly, the gifts he brings. It turned out to be one of our most meaningful traditions to date and a way to draw on a more charitable mindset this time of year… even if visions of those must-have shoes, sparkly jewels, and an electric kettle with a triple-digit price tag are still dancing in my head.

While it’s true that St. Nicholas Day is another day to add to an ever-lengthening list in which kids might come to expect gifts and treats, the simplicity of this particular gift-receiving holiday has created a tradition that both my husband and I and our children look forward to each year. Focusing on what we can do for others, rather than what we can expect to receive ourselves is a lesson that, while seemingly obvious, has required even more attention (particularly in my heart) than I would have ever thought. And, while you’ll see two squealing children running to our fireplace bright and early every December 6, their joy at receiving those tiny mementos has also in a way tempered their Christmas morning expectations, somehow making them even more grateful for the packages wrapped under the tree. Even if our responses for the meaning of the season are still works in progress.

What Is St. Nicholas Day?

While St. Nicholas’ feast day is on December 19, St. Nicholas Day is typically celebrated on December 6, the anniversary of his death (December 6, 343 AD). Those who celebrate the holiday may choose to leave a shoe out on the night of December 5 to find chocolate coins or an orange tucked in it the next morning.

While it might seem like just another excuse to get or give holiday treats, the history of St. Nicholas Day holds a message that can help center both the Advent and Christmas season in a way that far outlives the battery-powered gadgets, dolls, toys, and clothes that we might find on Christmas morning.  

While there’s much to be said about St. Nicholas’ life and charitable works, his role as patron saint to children paired with the legend of his generosity is particularly centric to the Western world’s celebration of St. Nicholas Day. But what about the shoes? Well, one of the more famous stories centering on St. Nicholas’ charitable works says he once dropped coins down the chimney of a poor man’s house to help pay the dowry for his daughters. This is where the tradition of leaving out shoes by the fireplace on the night of December 5 was derived.