St. Nicholas and American Christmas Customs
Waves of European immigrants brought cherished St. Nicholas holiday traditions to the United States. Over time these have melded into some common practices. If one looks closely, these reveal some distinctive characteristics of beloved St. Nicholas.
Christmas stockings by the fireplace
And the stockings were hung by the chimney with care in hopes that St. Nicholas soon would be there, goes the oft repeated Christmas rhyme. In the story of Nicholas rescuing the poor maidens from being sold into slavery, the gold dowry money, tossed in through the window, is said to have landed in stockings left to dry before the fire.
Orange or tangerine in the toe of filled Christmas stockings
The gold Nicholas threw to provide the dowry money is often shown as gold balls. These are symbolized by oranges or even apples. So the orange in the toe of the stocking is a reminder of Nicholas’ gift.
Candy Canes *
These are really candy croziers, one of St. Nicholas’ symbols. All bishops carry staffs, hooked at the top like a shepherd’s crook, showing they are the shepherds who care for, or tend, their people.
St. Nicholas Day Blessing of Candy Canes
Gift-giving in secret, during the night
Stockings are filled while children are sleeping. Nicholas did his gift giving secretly, under cover of darkness. He didn’t want to be seen and recognized as he wanted those he helped to give thanks to God.
Seasonal concern for the needy
St. Nicholas gave gifts to those in greatest need—the young and the most vulnerable. Christmas gifts and baskets given to those in need, along with other seasonal contributions to charity, reflect St. Nicholas’ unselfish concern for others. He never wanted or expected anything in return.
* A crozier, or bishop’s staff, is a common symbol for a bishop and is often used to identify St. Nicholas. Symbolizing a shepherd’s staff, it is a visible reminder of a bishop’s responsibility to care for people as the Good Shepherd cares for his sheep.back to top