Are you celebrating St. Nick's?

Milwaukee, Wisconsin

by Sandy Maxx

Lutz Mauder, German postcard
St Nicholas Center Collection

When you wake up on the morning of Dec. 6, will there be a stocking full of candy and maybe even a piece of fruit in it waiting for you? Or maybe some small gifts?

If you answered yes, you're one of most Milwaukeeans who participate a tradition known as St. Nick's Day.

Do you celebrate this holiday?

For some who have moved to Milwaukee from other cities, this is a new phenomenon. And if you just can't wait for Christmas—this could be a nice little tradition to adopt to help tide you over for the next two and half weeks of anticipation.

A few years ago, I was one of the uninitiated. I found a couple of presents in the living room that I left untouched, figuring my boyfriend just wrapped some gifts early and I was supposed to wait until Dec. 25 to open them. The St. Nick's Day tradition was then explained to me. Growing up in Kentucky, even though my father's side of the family is mostly Polish Michiganders, I had never heard of it. Of course, once I got up-to-speed on the custom, I complied and turned into a little kid and gleefully ripped open the gifts of candy and CDs.

A quick introduction to the man of the day:

Saint Nicholas is the patron saint of a long list of types of people including children, bakers, merchants, sailors, newlyweds, and shoe shiners. He lived in the 4th century and some of his greater feats during his colorful life include reviving murder victims and rescuing women from a life of prostitution. Saint Nicholas is the figure who evolved into the legend of Santa Claus and is known for his secret gift-giving.

If you trace several of the rituals celebrated in Europe around the birthday and benevolence of St. Nicholas, you can see how they've evolved to our Americanized and personal celebrations in modern Milwaukee. Since we have such a strong sense of heritage in our city, it follows that so many immigrants who originally populated this city brought those holiday traditions with them to continue.

In the Netherlands, children would anticipate the arrival of St. Nicholas on the night of December 5th by putting their shoes in front of the chimneys and singing a special song (any one up for a Christmas carol?) in the hopes of waking up to find chocolate or a small toy in their shoe. Like kids now leave milk and cookies for Santa on Christmas Eve, these children would put some hay or a carrot for St. Nicholas' horse as a nice gesture. Helpful for lobbying to make it on the 'Nice" list, right?

In Germany, children would leave a boot outside the front door on the night of December 5th in hopes of it being filled with gifts on Dec. 6 morning. The one boot or pair of shoes has become something else you wear on your foot, a stocking—which is a glorified name for a big ol' sock, these days.

Another amusing part of the German legend is that this tour of footwear is when St. Nicholas would assess at this time whether the child had been naughty or nice.

Naughty? Then you'd wake up to a charcoal in your boot—which has become referred to as a lump of coal in your stocking—for being bad these days. A further part of the German legend is that children worried that St. Nicholas would be accompanied on his boot-filling check-up rounds by a character called Knecht Ruprecht who'd use goat legs to beat children deemed naughty—or worse, eat the bad kids.

Milwaukee's St. Nick's Day is a lot less stressful. The simplicity and sweetness of St. Nick's are what I really like about the holiday.

Since the main treat on St. Nick's Day is candy, some people consider it similar to an Easter in the winter. Lots of 20-somethings and 30-somethings remember that along with that candy was often a small gift like baseball cards, a doll, or peppermint-flavored lip gloss. Today, St. Nick brings coffee store gift cards and bigger gift items. He tends to find a favorite DVD for me.

Others add in traditions of driving through the Candy Cane Lane neighborhood together or playing games at home.

It's been fun to find out people's favorite St. Nick's memories and customs here in town.

One of my co-workers at WMYX, Tony Lorino of Shorewood, remembers a St. Nick's Day that must have snuck up on his parents. That was the year that he received a glue-stick and a highlighter in his stocking. Seems St. Nick scavenged through an office desk at the last minute, but hey, at least he didn't forget one good little boy in Milwaukee and it made for a funny memory.

St. Nick's Day has been habit in Milwaukee for generations. There are parents and friends sending St. Nick's Day stockings and gifts to adults around the country to continue the happy feelings. One mom thinks St. Nick's is a good time of year to give the underwear and socks that aren't so fun to open at Christmas. If you don't have kids of your own, no problem. Many non-parents decide to continue the practice with nephews, nieces, and godchildren. I spoke with dog owners who make sure their pooches get the perks of St. Nick's Day treats, too.

Happy St. Nick's Day to you!

Merry Milwaukee tradition: St. Nick's
St. Nick's Day, a Nice Little Surprise, in Milwaukee
Milwaukee St. Nick—Varied Traditions
Milwaukee: Three Traditions
Wisconsin Family Traditions


St. Nick Who? And Why Are Milwaukeeans Celebrating Him?

"Are you celebrating St. Nick's?" by Sandy Maxx, from OnMilwaukee, Dec. 5, 2006. Permission pending.

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