History and Legends

Saint Nicholas Day Then And Now

text by Natalia Semczuk

In the 19th century, the 6th December was still a national holiday. All because of Saint Nicholas, the bishop of Myra, who, as the legend goes, used to help the poor by leaving all sorts of gifts on their doorstep.

Both the Orthodox Christians and Catholics devoted this one day to Nicolas, uniting in a wish to celebrate his generosity and goodness. Today it is known as Saint Nicholas’ Day. Unfortunately, since 1969 the 6th December is no longer recognised as an official holiday, just a “voluntary reminiscence”, which means that most of those who celebrate their name day, spend it at work.

Who can become a modern Saint Nicholas and how can they prove their newly acquired superpower? In theory, everyone can. It works best, though, if it is the parents who put gifts for their children in holiday socks or next to their bed overnight. In many Polish schools, there is also a tradition of Secret Santa – every child draws the person whom they will bring a gift at a price which they settled together with the teacher. The superpower is not, as one might think, something palpable, it is not a gift from somebody, but the gesture of giving itself. It is best illustrated by the time when, in communist Poland, shops were empty and parents were only able to give their children some fruit and sweets, for which they had to wait for hours in long queues, often at night.

What has changed since the 19th century? Virtually everything. Hardly anybody remembers the bishop of Myra, as Saint has become associated rather with the affable figure in red coat and long, white beard. And hardly anybody receives those small gifts, which, in the 19th century could even mean a slice of bread. Apples and gingerbread, so popular in the communist era, have also gone out of fashion, and have been replaced by iPhones and other expensive gadgets.  The bishop of Myra is often confused with Santa Claus or Ded Moroz, who were also known for giving gifts to children, although in slightly different circumstances. Fortunately, one thing has not changed throughout the years, and that is the joy that gifts bring, which a proof that the tradition should be cherished, never mind the name and appearance of the saint.