What Is Saint Nicholas Day, and How to Celebrate It This Year

This is one holiday tradition we look forward to starting this year.

As adults, we know that there isn't actually a holly-jolly man who lives in the North Pole and slides down our chimneys on Christmas Eve, but the story of Santa Claus did originate from a real-life person. Saint Nicholas of Myra was a Greek Christian bishop in the third century, and he was so influential they gave him his own holiday, which is celebrated around the world with stockings and gifts.

Saint Nicholas Day is celebrated around the world by exchanging small gifts (either placed in stockings or shoes) with family members and helping the less fortunate. Even if you haven't celebrated it before, this is one holiday tradition you can start this year.

Mens shoes filled with presents for St. Nicholas
Iordache Laurențiu, 500px/Getty Images

Who Was Saint Nicholas?

History tells us that Saint Nicholas was known for his lifetime of service. He sold his worldly possessions and gave his money to those in need, while helping the sick and suffering whenever possible. It is said that he didn't want recognition for his good deeds, so he would leave money, gifts, or supplies in the shoes of those in need. In those days, people would leave their winter shoes by the burning fire all night to dry them out before the next day—and when they woke up in the morning, their shoes would be filled with gold, left there by Saint Nicholas.

When Is Saint Nicholas Day?

Since Santa Claus is one of the most well-known holiday icons, you might assume that Saint Nicholas day coincides with Christmas, but the holiday is celebrated on December 5 or 6 in western Christian countries, or on December 19 in eastern Christian countries who observe the old church calendar.

How to Celebrate Saint Nicholas Day

Because Saint Nicholas was just the inspiration for the modern-day Santa Claus, they are technically two separate people. Saint Nicholas Day honors the real-life Christian saint, while the Santa Claus figure who fills our stockings on Christmas morning is entirely fictional. However, the ways in which the two figures are celebrated overlap quite a lot.

1. Fill Shoes with Gifts

Since Saint Nicholas was known for filling people's shoes, it's a European tradition to celebrate the holiday by leaving gifts or gold in a child's shoe. On the night of December 5, sneak around the house leaving small gifts or gold coins—we prefer the chocolate version ($6, See's Candy)—in each family member's shoes, so that they wake up to a fun surprise on December 6.

2. Exchange Stockings

In some European countries, it's customary to exchange traditional holiday stockings ($15, Target) on Saint Nicholas day rather than filling shoes with gifts. This is a great excuse to put up your stockings early this year—plus, decorating for Christmas early is actually good for you. Don't feel like you have to buy gifts for the stockings twice, though: If you want to participate in the tradition this year, let your family know you'll be opening stockings early (rather than opening them once on St. Nick's day and again on Christmas morning).

3. Help Others

Another way to celebrate the day is by honoring the service Saint Nicholas is known for by helping members of your local community. Call your local shelter or food pantry and find out what their greatest needs are, or find a way to volunteer from home. Helping those in need is always a worthwhile family tradition to start.

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