Winter is full of magical gift-givers. And even the figure Americans know best, Santa Claus, has different names and arrives on different days, depending on where you live. Throughout much of Europe, he is known as Saint Nicholas.
In the Netherlands, children put their wooden shoes (or sometimes baskets) by the mantel on the eve of Saint Nicholas (December 5) and expect to find them filled with treats the next morning. Saint Nicholas rides through the air on his white horse and comes down the chimney to fill the shoes or baskets. Carrots and hay are left out for his white horse.
Czech and Slovakian kids believe he comes down a golden cord carrying a basket of apples, nuts, and candies. In Hungary, the shoes are left outside a window; in France, children hang stockings near the fire.
How this fourth-century Bishop of Myra became Santa Claus is somewhat of a mystery. Legends of his generosity and miracles spread rapidly during the Middle Ages. And he became popular from Russia through Greece. It’s possible that his figure was merged in the northern countries with that of pagan deities.
In Austria, Saint Nicholas makes his rounds in glittering bishop’s robes. He has a long white beard and carries a pastoral staff. While Saint Nicholas rewards good children with nuts and sweets, naughty youngsters are menaced by a hairy monster with horns sometimes known as Krampus or Grampus, who threatens to carry them away in a bag. This pairing of a kindly figure and a punitive one is traditional, perhaps reflecting fears of the dark along with the gift-giving impulses of the winter season.
Saint Nicholas has his own special cookie: the Speculatius, a gingerbread figure of a bishop. The name means “image,” referring to the mirror image of Saint Nicholas that has been pressed into a wooden mold and then turned out on a sheet to bake in the oven.
In the Netherlands, Saint Nicholas brings treats like taai-taai, crisp ginger cakes baked in traditional patterns; sweet chocolate letters; pink and white candy hearts; hard spiced cakes; and letterbanket, the initials of the child’s name baked in pastry and filled with rich almond paste.
Waverly Fitzgerald is a writer, teacher, and calendar priestess who has studied the lore of holidays and the secrets of time for decades. She shares her research and her thoughts on her Living in Season website and in her book, Slow Time. She is currently working on a series of essays about looking for nature in the city and blogs for the Seattle PI as the “Urban Naturalist.”