St Nicolas vs Santa Claus

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With Christmas just round the corner, our writers are giving their views of the festive season in a new series of posts. Earlier in the week we had Colombian student Johanna describing her first Christmas in England. Here Erik describes the tradition of St Nicolas' Day in his home country of Slovakia:

"I knew that in the UK nothing special happens on the December 6th, but I hung my stocking in the window anyway. But Saint Nicolas did not show up. Maybe he didn't find the way as he doesn't visit children in the UK. Or, his sledge might have been shot down by the missiles installed before the Olympics. In the following article, I would like to describe to you the small pre-Christmas festival- Saint Nicolas' Day.

The Tradition of St Nicolas

Originally, Saint Nicolas is a Christian tradition, just like Christmas really. Nicolas was a bishop who lived in Turkey in the 3rd century. There was a poor family with three daughters living in the same city. I would say that no one would marry them due to their looks, but according to the story the family did not even have enough money to support a marriage.

Nicolas was a good man and always helped the poor. Therefore at night, he sneaked into the family's house like Batman and left a bunch of money on the window frame. He did it three times altogether so that all daughters could find a husband. Later, Nicolas was proclaimed a saint and became the patron of sailors, merchants, archers, thieves, children, pawnbrokers and students in many countries.

In Slovakia on the 6th December a man dressed as a bishop would give children little treats such as fruit, cakes or sweets. Nicolas is usually accompanied by the devil, which, apart from being the security guard, scares the misbehaving children and gives them an old potato instead of the sweets. The third member of Nicolas team is an Angel- usually a young girl dressed in a white gown. It used to be a nice tradition to welcome Nicolas arriving on the sledge (recently thwarted by global warming and a lack of snow). The gift giving went alongside the lighting of the central Christmas tree in town- a ceremony that officially opened the Christmas season.

Today's Christmas

But since then, the perception of Nicolas has changed utterly, and the bishop image has been sidelined to the church goers. Christmas season now starts in late October, at least in the TV commercials. After Turkey was inhabited by Muslims no one would believe the story about the Christian saint. Instead, in many supermarkets you see an old fat man dressed in a red gown with white fur, sitting in an armchair, besieged by greedy children. Reportedly, the red and white garment was inspired by Coca Cola.

Apparently, Nicolas became associated with the American Santa Claus, originally brought to New York by the Dutch settlers. He also used to be celebrated on 6th December, but over time he began to be associated with giving presents on 25th December. That's the only difference. In Slovakia Christmas gifts are the responsibility of the baby Jesus, and December 6th belongs to Saint Nicolas, or Mikuláš - the Slovak translation. Children therefore have to write two wish lists. One for Nicolas and one for the baby Jesus. Actually, they can add two recipients to the same email.

Well, whether it is the Baby Jesus, Papa Noel, Ded Maroz, Saint Nicolas, or Santa Claus; everyone is concerned only about the gifts. I feel we have definitely abandoned the original idea of Christmas- to enjoy the festival with family and friends, and remember those that need our help."

Erik Redli is a university graduate from Slovakia who is currently living in London. Read more of his posts here.

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