December 6th is the feast day of Saint Nicholas, the patron saint of children, which appropriately falls during the Advent season. This feast day is an especially exciting one for children as they count down the days on their Advent calendars in anticipation of Christmas day.
This tradition grew from the story of when St. Nicholas, the Bishop of Myra, threw bags of dowry money, either through a window or down a chimney, into the home of an impoverished family to rescue their daughters from being sold into slavery. This was just one of his many acts of good will and charity towards the poor, especially poor children.
One of the traditions surrounding his feast day is for children to leave their shoes out overnight in front of the fireplace, on the windowsill, or outside their bedroom door so that St. Nicholas can fill them with special fruits, nuts and other small gifts and treats, candy canes shaped into a bishop’s crosier. The gifts vary widely from country to country, but they all carry the same theme of small gifts and treats left in either shoes or stockings.
Another part of this tradition is to leave carrots or hay in their shoes overnight for St. Nicholas’ donkey to eat. St. Nicholas takes the hay and carrots for his donkey, and replaces them with small gifts and treats for the children in the morning.
Not all is merry and bright during Saint Nicholas' Day — and that’s all thanks to Krampus. Around the world, variations of this menacing figure accompany Saint Nicholas to punish children who misbehave. You’re most likely to bump into Krampus in Germany, Austria, Hungary, Slovenia, and the Czech Republic. The Eve of Saint Nicholas' Day is Krampusnacht, or Krampus Night, in some parts of Europe. Krampus takes to the streets, visiting the homes of misbehaving children. He’s usually depicted as half-man, half-goat: a frightening creature that borrows traits from demons, beasts, and the devil. Legend has it Krampus travels with Saint Nicholas, leaving coal for naughty children or — in some cases — kidnapping them in his sack.
There’s still time to brush up on your Dutch and celebrate Sinterklaas, or practice your German and join in on Krampusnacht.
When I was little, this day was celebrated with the arrival of St Nicholas (by helicopter – because the snow was too deep for the little donkey) and we would be given gingerbread men with little clay pipes. These clay pipes were the absolutely best thing to blow bubbles with. However, they were fragile and you could prove you were a ‘good’ child by looking after your pipe until the New Year.
For the younger children make gingerbread men or Christmas shapes, use a recipe that sets hard and can be kept for some time hung on the tree. If you have had enough of gingerbread after the houses last week then these can be made with another biscuit recipe – but there still needs to be either raisins for eyes, nose, mouth and buttons for the gingerbread men or sweets and icing. This tradition in our family has morphed into decorating the gingerbread in to Strictly Come Dancing Gingerbread Dancers with edible glitter and bright neon colours.