Customs Around the World
In many places St. Nicholas is the main gift giver. His feast day, St. Nicholas Day, is December 6, which falls early in the Advent season. Some places he arrives in the middle of November and moves about the countryside, visiting schools and homes to find out if children have been good. Other places he comes in the night and finds carrots and hay for his horse or donkey along with children's wish lists. Small treats are left in shoes or stockings so the children will know he has come.
Where St. Nicholas is prominent, his day, not Christmas, is the primary gift giving day. Parties may be held on the eve, December 5th, and shoes or stockings left for St. Nicholas to fill during the night. Children will find treats of small gifts, fruit or nuts, and special Nicholas candies and cookies. St. Nicholas gifts are meant to be shared, not hoarded for oneself.
American Santa Claus became a symbol of generosity following World War II as American troops, dressed as Santa, gave food and toys to children in war-torn Europe. This happened first in Britain, Italy, France, the Netherlands, and eventually in Germany and Japan. For many it was the first time they were exposed to American Santa Claus, thus making him far both more visible than he had been before the war, and associating him with good things in children's minds. Santa's presence with US servicemen has continued in all the wars of the 20th century and into the 21st. This prominence has contributed to the demise of traditional gift-givers in many places, including even his own precursor, St. Nicholas. As Gerry Bowler states, "A French sociologist has said that Santa Claus came to Europe in the suitcase of the Marshall Plan."
St. Nicholas and American Christmas Customs
Waves of European immigrants brought cherished St. Nicholas holiday traditions. How have these influenced today's popular holiday customs in the United States?
Rescuing St. Nicholas from Santa Claus
There are active movements in several European countries to keep traditional customs