Although today may be just another Friday here in America, today marks a special day in France & many other European countries. It is the eve of Saint Nicolas Day & tonight children will place out their shoes & stockings with the hope that Saint Nicolas will visit them to deliver gifts & goodies. But where did this tradition come from?
The origin of Saint Nicolas dates back to the third century when Nicholas of Patara (what is now modern-day Turkey) was born. After his parents died in an epidemic, Nicholas used his entire inheritance to assist the needy, the sick, & the suffering. He was soon made the Bishop of Myra & became known throughout the land for his generosity to those in need, his love for children, & his concern for sailors and ships. After a relic of Saint Nicolas was brought back to France during the Crusades, he became the main saint for the Lorraine region in France.
Throughout the centuries, many stories & legends have been told of Saint Nicolas & his deeds. However, the most popular story in France is of three children who wandered away while playing & got lost. A wicked butcher, believing the children to be wealthy, lured them into his shop & killed them in order to rob them. Saint Nicholas discovers this horrible crime & revives the children & returns them to their families. Ever since, the evil butcher has followed St. Nicolas in penance as Père Fouettard, who doles out punishments for the naughty children.
Today in France, Saint Nicolas is primarily celebrated in the regions Alsace, Lorraine, Nord-Pas-de-Calais, & Brittany. The whole family gets ready for the saint's arrival on December 6, with grandparents telling stories of the saint. Meanwhile bakeries & home kitchens are a hive of activity as spiced gingerbread cookies & mannala, or brioche shaped like the good saint, are baked. At school, children learn songs & poems about Saint Nicolas, as well as draw pictures of him & do crafts based on him. Saint Nicolas often visits nursery schools, giving children chocolates & sometimes even a little present. Though Père Fouettard carries switches to threaten the children, what they really fear is that he may advise Saint Nicolas to pass them by on his gift-giving rounds.On the eve of the saint's day, children put their shoes near the chimney & sing a song to Saint Nicolas before going off to bed. The shoes overflow in the morning with little gifts, biscuits, & sweets, but even good children find ribbon-tied birch twigs, as everyone does something a little naughty!
Source: The St. Nicolas Center