In France Saint Nicolas comes primarily in the east and north—Alsace, Lorraine, and Nord-Pas-de-Calais. A little donkey carries baskets filled with children’s gifts and treats.
The whole family gets ready for the saint’s arrival on December 6, with grandparents telling stories of the saint.
The most popular one is of three children who wandered away and got lost. Cold and hungry, a wicked butcher lured them into his shop where he attacked and salted them away in a large tub. Through the intervention of St. Nicolas the boys were restored to their families.
This story led to Nicolas being recognized as the protector of children. In France statues and paintings often portray this event, showing the saint with children in a barrel. The evil butcher became Père Fouettard, who has followed St Nicolas in shame ever since. This story is also a popular French children’s song.
Meanwhile bakeries and home kitchens are a hive of activity as spiced gingerbread cookies and mannala, brioche shaped like the good saint, are baked. At school children learn St. Nicolas songs and poems and draw and paint St. Nicolas pictures and crafts. Saint Nicolas visits nursery schools, giving children chocolates and 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 and sing a song to Saint Nicolas before going off to bed. The shoes overflow in the morning with special Saint Nicolas sweet treats—chocolates and special cookies. Even good children find ribbon-tied birch twigs, as everyone does something naughty!
In Saint-Nicolas-de-Port1 and Nancy, where Nicolas is patron of all Lorraine, thousands of the faithful come on pilgrimage for his feast day, 6 December. The celebration is festive—with music and a parade of beautiful floats for the saint’s magical arrival, escorted by Père Fouettard. At the Town Hall the Mayor gives the good saint the key to the city. The grand evening ends with a big fireworks display.
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More in other sections
Whitmonday Festival of Saint Nicolas in St. Nicolas-de-Port, France
December Festival in Saint-Nicolas-de-Port
Traditional French song in French and English, illustrated
St. Nicolas Monuments in France
Statues and images in public places
1. The AD 844 division of the Carolingian Empire created Lotharingia, now Lorraine, Luxembourg, Rhineland, Belgium and the Netherlands. This region, now divided among five nations, has many common cultural and religious traditions. Saint Nicolas is one of the most important of these. St-Nicolas-de-Port, home to Saint Nicolas’ relics since the 1100s, is the focal point for regional customs, particularly religious, related to the saint.