This Thursday, December 5th, is Saint Nicholas’ Eve, a celebration of the saint’s birthday. In many parts of northern and central Europe, this is the big wintertime occasion for gift-giving (with Christmas, until recently, being celebrated more as a religious holiday than a candy-and-presents one).
Shoe-candy and windmill cookies. In preparation for the big day, little kids in Holland, Belgium and Germany (among other countries) put their shoes (not their stockings) in front of the chimneys and sing Sinterklaas songs. Sometimes, they’ll also leave a carrot or sweet hay in their shoes as a treat for St. Nicholas’ horse. On the morning of December 5, “if they’ve been good,” children will find a little present like candies or little toys waiting for them in their chimney-side shoes. A favorite windmill-shaped ginger cookie, Speculaas, is baked for the day’s celebration. (Our speculaas recipe is here).
Later that evening, Sinterklaas brings presents to every “good” child (just like the US, really, though, every child gets a present, even the naughty ones), placing a present-filled bag outside the house. Adults carry on the myth of Sinterklaas by knocking on the door or window, pretending to be Sinterklaas’ helper.
Zwarte Pieten, Krampus(es), and Knecht Ruprecht, aka Be good for goodness’ sake.
The myth is that, if a child had been naughty, Sinterklaas’ helper, the Zwarte Pieten (“Black Peter”, perhaps the least politically correct sidekick of the modern era), put all the naughty children in sacks, and Sinterklaas took them to his home in Spain (instead of the North Pole).
In parts of Austria, masked Krampusse, who are Nikolaus’s helpers, roam the streets during the festival of St. Nicholas. In Croatia and Bosnia and Herzegovina, disobedient children who fail to behave themselves will receive a visit from Krampus who traditionally leaves a switch that their parents will use to discipline them.
My neighbor, who grew up in Bavaria, also tells stories about another (slightly less scary) assistant of St. Nicholas’ , Knecht Ruprecht, who gives naughty children yucky gifts such as lumps of coal, sticks, and stones, while good little children receive treats from Saint Nicholas.
An even scarier story, celebrated with dessert. In France, the St. Nicholas legend includes a Peter and the Wolf-like story of children rescued from an evil butcher (who had made the kids into sausages! yikes!). The French celebrate the day with mannala or “little man” (a guy-shaped brioche shaped like the saint, at right). Here is a recipe for manala from the whimsically named LovelyBuns blog. 🙂
In Poland, children are tested on their catechism and rewarded with chocolate-glazed, heart-shaped pierniczki or honey-spice cookies in the shape of St. Nicholas.
There is a wonderful list of traditional (and not so traditional) supper/main dishes associated with celebrations of St. Nicholas Day on the St. Nicholas Center website.