All saints have their own holiday, like Saint Patrick on 17 March, but no saint has so many traditions in so many countries and is as well-known as Saint Nicolas. Not only in the Netherlands and Belgium is it considered a holiday, all across Europe, like Romania, the Tsjech Republic, Austria, Switzerland and some parts in France, but also farther away like Ukraine and Curacao. In every country the celebration is based on different stories, legends and history, leading to different traditions and various forms of celebrations.
According to the songs Saint Nicolas comes from Spain, which is probably based on the lively trade the Netherlands has had with Spain for centuries. He originally comes from Turkey and was a bishop in the fourth century. Most famous is the tale about a poor farmer who wasn’t able to get together the dowry for his three daughters. When they got to a marital age a pocket with money was found in their drying shoes in front of the fire. It is said that it was Nicolas who provided the money for the dowry.
This tale, among others, is the base for the feast that is held on 5 December each year, but there is enough happening in the weeks prior to this date. He arrives by steamboat halfway November and as he is a busy man, there are a lot of back-up Saint Nicolases arriving around the same time in all parts of the country too. From that date on children put shoes in front of chimneys and front doors filled with drawings, oranges and carrots for Saint Nicolas and his horse. They often sing songs too. Overnight, shoes are sometimes filled with pepernoten (tiny, gingerbread biscuits), chocolate coins and small gifts or they are left alone, which means Saint Nicolas was too busy to make a house call that night. On 5 December Saint Nicolas has an exhausting night, as he has to visit every house. He often just leaves big bags or crates filled with presents near the front door and knocks on the door to let the children know he was there.
As we all know Saint Nicolas can only do so much, so from around the age of 8 or 9 children and adults give each other gifts too. Tickets with names are drawn, indicating for who you have to buy a present, make a ‘surprise’ and write rhymes. The surprise serves the idea that it takes time to find out who it’s for, or what the present inside could be. The poem is often written to mock or emphasise characteristics and events that happened that year. Saint Nicolas knows everything and has eyes everywhere so it’s important to deny you made that ‘surprise’ or wrote that poem. The sport, on the other hand, is to find out as soon as possible who drew your ticket.
In larger groups or when people are too busy to make ‘surprises’ people often play games. The eyes of the dice, which is often used, indicating what to do with presents, like giving it away or passing it to the left or right.
In whatever form Saint Nicolas is celebrated, it usually comes with typical snacks, like speculaas, pepernoten, chocolate letters, taaitaai, meringue in Saint Nicolas shapes and marzipan. Nowadays gifts are often toys and other items for pastime, whereas the gifts, until relatively recently, used to be things like warm socks and jumpers. This tells us celebrating Saint Nicolas isn’t about what presents you get, but about having fun, being together and sharing.