Today marks an important date in the Slovak calender and one I have tried to uphold in our family (even though there are no children yet). St Nicholas called Mikuláš (pronounced a bit like like Meeckulash?- Slovak fam help a girl out!) is popular especially with children who are given presents of sweets and various small toys. According to this tradition they clean their shoes, put them on the window sill in the evening and the next morning they find a lovely surprise in them.
History of St.Nicholas
The customs related to the day of St Nicholas have been evolving into its current form for centuries. Its celebration relates to the belief in prosperity and Mikuláš was viewed as the protector in many ways. Merchants used to close important and complicated deals on this day. In some areas, he was considered as the patron of happy marriage. Single women would prayed to him for their husbands( yeah, we know God is the true way!) According to another legend, he was reviving the murdered children (okay…..pretty morbid). This resulted in the folk belief that he brings children and helps women in labour.
Over time the customs and traditions associated to St. Nicholas´ Day (6th December ) gradually developed into the form known nowadays.
One of the customs of an ancient origin was marching of the three men in masks. The first of them represented a goat led by the second man wrapped in straw. The third man had an effigy of a woman dressed in trousers with boots hanging from them tied on his back. When the man turned round the effigy was kicking the passers-by with its boots.
Mikuláš wears a traditional bishops costume, consisting of a red coat with fur and hood, a tall bishop cap and a special Bishop stick. In the past, he used to have a numerous group of companions which was later reduced to an angel wearing a white shirt and a devil with a long black fury coat and chain with bells around his waist. Children also used to pray to Mikuláš to deserve a treat, and there used to be many markets organized, selling pastry, dried fruits, small toys and clay figurines. Nowadays kindergartens and schools often organize Mikuláš celebrations with real people dressed as this famous trio and bringing sweets.
How is it celebrated today?
Today, the only custom still pertaining to Mikuláš is about presenting children with sweet treats. On the 5th December, in the evening prior to the Day of St Mikuláš, a man with white beard visits Slovak children accompanied by an angel and a devil. The children are supposed to clean their boots and place them in the windows. In the morning, on the 6th December, they will find a surprise in them from Mikuláš. If they were good throughout the year, it will be sweet treats. Chocolate figures, clementine’s, whole peanuts with the shell or an advent calendar with 24 chocolates for each day of Advent. If they were however misbehaving, they will find coal and onions in their boots.
How does it differ from the Netherlands?
Well, in the Netherlands, the primary occasion for gift-giving is 5 December, when his feast day is celebrated.
In the days leading up to 5 or 6 December (starting when Saint Nicholas has arrived by steamboat around mid-November), young children put their shoes in front of the chimneys and sing Sinterklaas songs. In the past, they put a carrot or some hay in their shoes, as a gift to St. Nicholas’ horse. The next morning they find a small present in their shoes, ranging from sweets to marbles or some other small toy. On the evening of 5 December, Sinterklaas brings presents to children who have behaved well (or not; they often both receive presents) in the past year.
In practice, just as with Santa Claus, all children receive gifts without distinction. This is often done by placing a bag filled with presents outside the house or living room, after which a neighbor or parent bangs on the door or window, pretending to be Sinterklaas’ assistant. Another option is to hire or ask someone to dress up as Sinterklaas and deliver the presents personally.
As with Mikuláš in Slovakia, Sinterklaas wears a bishop’s robes including a red cape and mitre and is assisted by many mischievous helpers, formerly known as ‘Zwarte Pieten‘ (“Black Pete’s” – That a whole other blog post!). Children in Slovakia are more likely to receive the traditional clementine’s and chocolates in the shoes.
Go big but stay home!
Julian and I typically have a bigger gathering of friends for Mikuláš, however, covid hasn’t got lost yet, so we opted for a smaller gathering of friends this year, but at least the typical Slovak traditions were upheld. Kapustnica and Halušky (my favourite) were lovingly cooked and served to our guests who were well a truly full to the brim once they’d finished. I think our Dutch friends enjoyed themselves. I do miss gathering with our friends in the UK for this though. Every tradition just hit differently this year.
However he comes, Saint Nicholas reminds us that giving is more important than receiving, and doing for others is the faithful way to live. Remind you of someone? Who’s birth we celebrate on the 25th? Jesus comes as a sign of love, hope peace. Something we all need this time of year and generally. So whether you celebrate St Nicholas, Mikuláš or the one person you truly need this year -Jesus- give and receive with love and thanksgiving.
Do you celebrate St. Nicolas day? If so which traditions and customs do you follow? Let talk in the comments below.