Category Archives: St. Nicholas

Unless Ye Become As Little Children

Holy Innocents’ Day, Childremas

Pure and simple: Today, this Third Day of Christmas, is all about kids. If you have children or grandchildren or great-grandchildren or nieces or nephews, celebrate them today. But don’t forget as well to celebrate the child you once were. That kid is in there somewhere, and so is that sense of wonder, and it is good sometimes to check at the door all the weight we carry of the world and just be a bit like that old self. 

In that same spirit, I’m going to check out slightly tonight and give you for this Third Day of Christmas a reprint of the Convivio Book of Days chapter for the day, one first published on December 28, 2013. I’d write a fresh post, but we are trying to get our winter greetings out in the morning mail, and, well… there is only so much I can do in a day (or a late night). I will mention one thing that I’ve learnt about Childremas since last Christmas: The day was viewed with such great superstition that it was considered unlucky even to put on a new suit on the Third Day of Christmas, or to clip your fingernails, or to flat out begin any project at all. It is the day we remember the innocents slaughtered by order of King Herod after he heard of the Christ child’s birth. Not everything about the Christmas story is good; the story of the Holy Innocents is one that is truly disturbing. Our lesson, perhaps? Never underestimate the threat of an insecure, self-centered man in a position of power.


The 28th of December has long been considered the unluckiest day of the year. It is the Third Day of Christmas, Holy Innocents’ Day, and it gets its name from the slaughter of the children of Judea at the order of King Herod after the birth of Jesus, who feared losing his earthly throne to the child. Commencing any undertaking on the 28th of December was to be avoided, especially a marriage or a business venture, for anything begun on this day, it was thought, would certainly fail to prosper.

Be that as it may, the Third Day of Christmas has always been focused on children, and it is a good day to honor not only the children in your life, but also the children we once were: to reconnect with a time when we were more willing to suspend disbelief, more willing to be fully immersed in things, as children are wont to be. The child you were has certainly informed the adult you’ve become, so there is a thread that resonates across the years. This, we feel, is something worth nurturing.

One of the oldest midwinter traditions in the Church is the election of a Boy Bishop each St. Nicholas’s Day on the Sixth of December. He would be chosen from the choirboys, and he would rule until Childremas, this Third Day of Christmas. The office was serious business. The Boy Bishop wore full vestments and mitre, and he would perform all the duties of a bishop, save for celebrating mass, although he did often deliver the sermons. The actual bishop would, in some places, have to follow the orders of the Boy Bishop. These traditions tap into the ideas of the Feast of Fools, as well, where the normal order of things is ceremoniously reversed (which blends into the customs for the Fourth Day of Christmas, tomorrow), and perhaps relates to the words of the Magnificat: God has put down the mighty from their throne and has exalted the humble and the meek.

In medieval times, the Boy Bishop could be found in most every cathedral in France, Britain and Germany during the Yuletide season. The custom was treated with such seriousness that if he should die while in office, the Boy Bishop received the same burial honors as a real bishop. The 1869 Chambers Brothers’ Book of Days gives mention to one unfortunate Boy Bishop who did come to his end while in office, telling us that a monument to his memory may be found on the north side of the nave at Salisbury Cathedral.

In Spain and Latin America, the Third Day of Christmas is a day for practical jokes, the victims of which being called inocentes, although sometimes it is the prankster that gets that name in a plea for forgiveness. No matter how you spend the day, the theme, it seems, is universal: celebrating and honoring children.

Image: A scene from one of the Advent calendars I had as a boy. I saved every one of them. I think traditional German Advent calendars are a sure path back to the language we once spoke as children… and that’s pretty much the reason why we sell them at our website.


Put Out Your Shoes: It’s St. Nicholas’ Eve

Tomorrow, December 6, is the feast day of St. Nicholas, and tonight, in the overnight hours, St. Nicholas will travel about on his donkey. Wise children will leave carrots and sweet hay in their shoes when they go to bed. When they wake up in the morning, they may find that St. Nicholas has taken the carrots and hay for his donkey, and left fruits and nuts and candies in their shoes in exchange, and maybe some small presents, as well. It’s a sweet and old Advent tradition, part of the countdown to Christmas. And with it, we meet the first of the Midwinter gift bearers. St. Nicholas leads a procession of gift bearers that continue on through Advent and Christmas with others like the Christkindl, Santa Lucia, Father Christmas and Père Noël and Babbo Natale and Santa Claus, los Tres Reyes (the Three Kings) and a kind old witch named Befana who will sweep away the remnants of the Christmas season when it ends with Epiphany on the 6th of January.

That’s a lot of gifts. But these gift bearers harken back to a time when oranges and hazelnuts and marzipan were wonderful wintertime gifts. (Some of us still feel this way; living in a small old house with small old closets, Seth and I really appreciate gifts that are simple and edible.) These gift bearers also are quite regional. As for St. Nicholas, although he was from Turkey and he is a patron saint of so many cities and countries, on this night, St. Nicholas’ Eve, he is known best in Northern Europe, in places like Germany and the Netherlands.

Nicholas in his humanity was a Bishop of Myra in the fourth century. He became known far and wide for his acts of generosity… not the least of which was his hiding bags of coins in the shoes of poor girls who were without dowries. His gift bearer legend grew out of this human kindness. But this Midwinter gift bearer travels not just with his donkey, but also with a dark companion known by various names: Knecht Ruprecht, Black Peter, and Pelznickel are some of them. But he is best known as Krampus: half man, half goat, a bit terrifying… the punisher of children who have been naughty. Perhaps this dark companion comes out of that same humanity of Nicholas’, for we all have our dark side, and maybe the Krampus is Nicholas’ dark side, manifested.

To be sure, St. Nicholas and his companion will be parading in cities throughout Northern Europe tonight. I learn so much from reader comments to the blog and here are two that were posted in the past about St. Nicholas’ Eve: Kelly O’Brien wrote, “I live in Germany & just experienced my first Krampus fest in the Austrian Tyrol region over Thanksgiving. It was terrifying! Not only do modern-day Krampus tout chains and whips, but parade through the village with torches and lots of other fiery devices. The costumes & masks were creepy beautiful, apparently a source of local craftsmanship pride. Do you think this is where ‘going to hell in a hand basket’ comes from?”

And Tad DuBois wrote, “I live and work in Germany and we went to sleep to howling winds last night and awoke to snow and ice. The neighbor’s kinder were all standing in front of their windows watching the snow fly (and no doubt hoping for school cancelations). At my office this morning St. Nicholas and Krampus have just visited. St. Nicholas dispensed candy canes and Krampus had little bags of something dark, coal or reindeer turds perhaps (actually was dark chocolate molded to resemble bits of coal). To be truthful, the Krampus who visited seemed to be a mash-up of Eye-gore from ‘Young Frankenstein’ and Riff-Raff from ‘Rocky Horror.’ Still a wonderful tradition.”

Kelly and Tad: If you’re reading this year, thank you. The parades and the visits from St. Nicholas and Krampus all sound wonder-full. Here in Lake Worth, in these United States, where these legends never gained much foothold (Krampus only has one human foot, after all), our celebration in this house will be much quieter. At our local Publix, they sell St. Nicholas (or St. Claus) cookies in the bakery that come from Steenstra’s Bakery in Michigan. They come in an orange box wrapped in cellophane. Steenstra’s has been selling St. Claus cookies since 1926. They taste of almond and warm spices like ginger and clove, and they depict five different scenes about St. Claus (more correctly about the kind bishop who gave gifts to the poor while they slept). There is St. Claus on a horse (a derivation of that donkey), a boy and a girl (because they like to receive presents from St. Claus), a rooster (because St. Claus starts his day at sunup), an owl (because St. Claus works til sundown), and a windmill (because St. Claus lives in a windmill).

I’ll probably get us some of those Steenstra’s cookies, and maybe tonight we will make some mulled wine, our first batch as we enter this winter, as the first of the gift bearers enters, too. We’ll leave our shoes by the bed, because we always do (again, small closets). St. Nicholas may not make it all the way here from Northern Europe, but Haden the Convivio shop cat will maybe drop one of the stuffed little toys she hunts in the darkness into one of our shoes. She’ll make those mysterious feline hunting noises she makes each night when we shut the lights. We take mystery where we can find it.

Image: “St. Nicholas Eve” by Richard Brakenburgh. Oil on canvas, 1685 [Public domain] via Wikimedia Commons.


On Advent, St. Nicholas, and Speculaas


Holiday confession time: When the Advent season arrives as early as it did this year, which basically stems from Christmas itself falling on a Sunday, I have a harder time than usual transitioning into the Christmas spirit. We’re already past the Second Sunday of Advent (it was yesterday) and still you’ll find dried corn hanging on our front door and orange lights strung on our bookcase. Though we’ve been opening the windows on our advent calendar, we had to catch up the first couple of days because we didn’t have a calendar chosen on the First. And life’s been so busy, Seth and I have ourselves quite a lot of catching up to do on our advent candles.

Ah, but tonight comes St. Nicholas’ Eve, and with this night, we welcome the first of the Midwinter gift bearers, wending his way through the midwinter darkness. Advent and Christmas suddenly seem more tangible, more real. On years like this, St. Nicholas serves as my reality check.

Although Santa Claus is a super big deal here in the States, and though we often call him Old St. Nick, the real St. Nicholas barely earns a blink of anyone’s eyes here. But there are other parts of the world, especially throughout Europe, where this is a very important night indeed. It is the Eve of St. Nicholas (St. Nicholas’s Day being tomorrow, the 6th of December), and children there will place their shoes by the chimney before going to bed in hopes that St. Nicholas will fill them with gifts. They’ll set out carrots and hay for his donkey.

In these overnight hours, the old bishop will make his rounds. Good children might wake up on St. Nicholas’ Day to find their shoes filled with fruits and nuts and sweets and small toys. But St. Nicholas does not wander alone; he travels tonight with a dark companion. The companion goes by many names, depending on the region––Knecht Ruprecht, Black Peter, Pelznickel… but he is best known as Krampus: half man, half goat, a bit terrifying… the punisher of children who have been naughty. These two are not as secretive as our American Santa. There are parades this time of year throughout Europe for St. Nicholas’ Day and Krampus pretty much steals the show at some of these parades, especially in parts of Germany, where tonight is known as Krampusnacht.

I love the time of the Midwinter gift bearers. Such a beautiful way to make the Midwinter darkness less… dark (despite Krampus). St. Nicholas will be followed over the next few weeks by the Christkindl, by Santa Lucia, by Father Christmas and Santa Claus, by los Tres Reyes (the Three Kings) and a kind old witch named Befana who will sweep away the remnants of the Christmas season in early January.

But that’s all a long ways away. For us tonight here in this little old house in Lake Worth, we will leave our shoes by the bed, which we always do. Our small old home has small old closets, and so we almost always have a couple of pairs of shoes outside the closet––there’s just no place in the closet to put them. I don’t know if St. Nicholas and Krampus will make their way this far from Europe, but chances are good that once we go to bed, Haden the Convivio shop cat will spend some time hunting down her little stuffed animal toys, carrying them about and making the odd cries that cats make once they have caught their quarry, and maybe tonight she will drop one of them into someone’s shoe, as she is wont to do so many nights. But before those magic overnight hours, we will brew ourselves some tea, or maybe some mulled wine, and we will for sure open a package of Steenstra’s St. Claus cookies. The cookies are speculaas, a type of Dutch cookie made for St. Nicholas’ Eve. They sell them all year long at the Publix bakery in a small cellophane-wrapped package. The cellophane is clear and the box inside is bright orange. The Steenstra family emigrated from the Netherlands to Michigan in 1926, and that’s where the cookies are still made, as they have been for about 90 years now. They taste of almond and warm spices like ginger and clove, and they depict five different scenes about St. Claus (more correctly about St. Nicholas of Myra, the kind fourth century bishop who gave gifts to the poor while they slept). There is St. Claus on a horse (a derivation of that donkey), a boy and a girl (because they like to receive presents from St. Claus), a rooster (because St. Claus starts his day at sunup), an owl (because St. Claus works til sundown), and a windmill (because St. Claus lives in a windmill). The first of the gift bearers gives us reason to celebrate tonight; we hope you’ll join us in that.

Image: Our Steenstra’s speculaas, ready to go. Just have to mull that wine now.