Leave out your shoes to celebrate this cherished Italian tradition on December 6
When I was growing up, my favorite day in December was December 6: St. Nicholas Day. Unlike Christmas itself, which was a family event with solemn religious rituals, St. Nicholas Day was purely for the kids, a celebration of gifts and sweets on the feast day of the patron saint of children. And while I'm not a kid anymore (well, I am at heart!), this Italian tradition is still one of my favorite parts of the holiday season.
Saint Nicholas of Myra was born in what is now Turkey to a rich family. He was a Christian bishop and a very generous man, and is said to have helped poor children by throwing sacks of gold coins through their open windows or chimneys at night, where they would often land in stockings and shoes that had been hung up to dry. Today, kids leave their shoes by the door or on the windowsill on St. Nicholas Eve, and wake up to them filled with candy and other treats.
This may sound familiar to those of you raised with Santa Claus coming down the chimney on Christmas Eve to deliver gifts! Like so many Christmas traditions, the St. Nicholas legend has traveled over hundreds of years, combining elements from different cultures to eventually evolve into the Santa Claus story we tell today. (The Dutch name for the saint, Sinterklaas, is where we get the name Santa Claus!) But while Santa became the primary gift-giver here in North America - and Father Christmas delivers presents in England - St. Nicholas is still the hero to many European children, especially in Italy, France, Holland, and Germany.
If you want to add a new tradition to your Christmas celebrations, here's how to welcome St. Nicholas on Dec. 6:
On the night of December 5, have the kids write letters to St. Nicholas with their wishes for the new year. Promise to be good - bad children get a lump of coal! - and leave the letter next to a shoe set out by the door or fireplace. We would always leave a carrot in our shoes, as a treat for Nicholas' reindeer companion. (Some kids in rural communities leave hay instead, while others believe he has a donkey, not a reindeer. Either way, it's about being compassionate to the animals who help us.) Once the kids go to bed, take away the letters and carrots and fill up the shoes with St. Nicholas treats, leaving them to be discovered in the morning as another little piece of Christmastime magic.
Suggestions for filling your St. Nicholas shoes:
Candy canes: Saint Nicholas was an early Christian bishop, and candy canes are said to be shaped like the bishop's staff.
Gold coins: Either foil-covered chocolate or in the form of a few Sacagawea dollars, coins represent the money Nicholas gave to poor families.
Oranges: A healthy treat that happens to be in season in December!
New socks: A pair of fuzzy socks to keep away the winter chill, in a fun pattern, is the perfect fit for a shoe-based holiday.
Chocolate: What day isn't better with chocolate? Add some favorite chocolates for a sweet treat.