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the legend of Saint Nicholas

If you happen to be of Scandinavian, Slavic, or German ancestry, it’s possible that you’ve heard of a holiday called Saint Nicholas Day, which traditionally is celebrated today, December sixth.  The Saint Nicholas or St. Nick that we celebrate on this day is believed to be largely responsible for many of the Northern European and American versions of Santa Claus, but he definitely has a legendary presence all his own.

It’s believed by many that Nicholas began as a young man, who, after the deaths of his wealthy parents, received a hefty inheritance.  Already active in the christian church, the legend goes that instead of spending or holding his newfound wealth, Nicholas set about using it to the greater good: helping the poor and the needy.  As word of his selfless deeds spread across the land, he was eventually made the bishop of his homeland of Myra (an area along the southern coast of what is present day Turkey).

 Ancient Turkey

Many different tales of St. Nicholas’s kindness have been told over the centuries, including one that posthumously grants him credit for one of our most widespread Christmas traditions: hanging stockings.  The story tells of a poor man with three lovely daughters who was so destitute that he had nothing to offer for their dowries.  At the time (circa 330AD) a young woman without a dowry was unlikely to ever marry, leaving her to a solitary and struggling existence.  But according to the folktale Nicholas heard of their plight, and one by one threw sacks of gold through the family’s open window under cover of night that the ladies might each have a princely dowry afterall.

 why we hang stockings for gifts

The belief is that the coin bags each time landed within the family’s shoes, which were placed each night by the fireside to be warmed and dried.  Subsequently those who still celebrate Saint Nicholas Day leave a shoe outside their door, hoping to awake and find small gifts, coins, or candy inside.  According to some European legends, a horned fawn-like demon accompanies our Santa figure, leaving coal or small branches rather than gifts within the shoes of children who’ve been naughty.

Despite the stark and fervent belief in his existence, there remains no definitive proof that the bishop or priest named Nicholas was ever formally canonized, or that he even existed at all, but either way the lessons of his legend are the same: be nice and do good works, or you won’t find candy in your Christmas sock.

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