The countdown to Christmas is likely the most exciting time of year for Christian children. Each family has Advent traditions of their own including Advent wreaths, Advent calendars, Jesse trees, and Christmas trees that help build the anticipation of the celebration of Christ’s birth. Right smack at the beginning of Advent is an opportunity to add another fun tradition – one that will help teach your children about the real Santa Claus and the joy of giving and performing good deeds.
Dec. 6 is St. Nicholas’ feast day and it’s quickly becoming a popular new way for Catholic families to celebrate the season and teach their children the true story of the man behind the beard. St. Nicholas was a bishop who had a reputation as a generous and secretive gift giver. He was officially recognized as a saint in 800 and in the 1200s Catholics in France began celebrating Bishop Nicholas Day on Dec 6. Over the centuries, his popularity continued to grow and Dutch immigrants brought their pronunciation of his name — Sinter Klass — as well as their Dutch traditions to America. These led the way to the name Santa Claus and the tradition of his middle of the night generosity on Christmas Eve.
Leaving out shoes
The most common way to celebrate St. Nicholas Day is to leave shoes out for St. Nicholas to place small gifts in. Traditionally, these would be candies or coins – small items that bring an amazing amount of joy to children. Children simply leave their shoes (or wooden clogs) by the door or on the window sill on the eve of St. Nicholas Day and during the night, he comes and leaves these gifts. Anything will work including: spare change, foreign coins, chocolate coins, St. Nicholas chocolate, clementines, St. Nicholas holy cards, candy canes, Christmas ornaments, and basically anything small enough to fit in a shoe. Think dollar store items. This isn’t about creating another Christmas morning.
Rather than shoes, some families choose to leave Christmas socks filled with coins for the children. This is in honor of the most famous story of St. Nicholas, in which he left gold in the stockings three daughters had hung to dry. Their father didn’t have enough money to secure weddings for them, so St. Nicholas left the gold while they were all asleep. A new pair of festive Christmas socks filled with coins — whether real or chocolate — is a simple and fun way to celebrate St. Nicholas.
Blessing of candy canes
The candy cane is representative of St. Nicholas’ crozier. On the morning of Dec. 6, break out a box of candy canes, or use the ones left in the children’s shoes. Say this blessing over them and then use them to decorate your Christmas tree.
Learn about St. Nicholas
Knowing about St. Nicholas will help your children better understand Santa Claus and the Christmas Eve traditions we have today. As they grow and learn that Christmas isn’t really about the gifts they receive from Santa, they won’t be disappointed to learn that Santa isn’t real. Instead, they will know that he is real in the sense that he is a saint in heaven and we use his example of generosity to bestow gifts onto others in celebration of Christ. The true meaning of Christmas comes to life when we understand that St. Nicholas was a man devoted to living like Christ. You can read books about St. Nicholas or watch a kid-friendly movie.
St. Nicholas crafts
St. Nicholas food
What’s a party without delicious food? Create St. Nicholas cookies like these or these from Catholic Cuisine. Or celebrate with an amazing breakfast featuring St. Nicholas pancakes or a cherry cheese coffee cake in the shape of a candy cane. St. Nicholas strawberries are a great treat. For more ideas, check out these traditional recipes from the St. Nicholas Center.
Spreading acts of kindness
Now that you know all about St. Nicholas, it’s time to spread acts of kindness in his honor. Donate food to your local food pantry which is likely collecting donations to create Christmas meals for families in need. Choose a child’s name from your parish’s giving tree to purchase gifts for this Christmas. Donate shoes and clothing to your local homeless shelter. Bring cookies to your local police or firefighters. Call your local children’s hospital and ask about donating toys or small gifts to children who will be spending Advent or Christmas in the hospital.
Don’t forget an important part of any feast day: Pray to St. Nicholas and ask him to intercede for you.