December 6th is the feast of Saint Nicholas and honours his life and the good deeds he is known for. This is the day Saint Nicholas arrives in many European countries. His day, not Christmas, is the primary gift giving day. He often leaves special Santa shaped chocolates and cookies, and his gifts are meant to be shared, not kept for oneself.
Here’s a photo of one of my Saint Nicholas sculptures. He stands approximately 30″ tall and is part of a private collection As you can see he is dressed in rich Bishop robes and the ceremonial Mitre head-dress. St. Nicholas always carries a staff and pouches of coins.
In the Netherlands he is known as SinterKlaas. He travels from Spain on a steamer together with his side kick Swarte Piet. He leaves candy and nuts for good girls and boys and in return, children fill their shoes with hay and sugar for his horse.
In Germany, December 6th is Nikoloustag St. Claus Day. On the eve of that day children leave a shoe or boot outside their door. The next morning they will find them filled with candies or small toys, but if they were bad they will find small golden birch branches, a symbol of spanking.
I like to acknowledge this day and its traditions because it’s an opportunity to learn about St. Nicholas and that he was, in fact, a real person. Saint Nicholas became a priest, and later, a Bishop of the early Catholic Church, circa 270 AD in the city of Patara, which is now part of Turkey. True to the christian concept of giving up belongings and following Christ, St. Nicholas gave up all of his belongings. He was well known for giving to needy people, especially children. There are may stories and tales of him helping out children in need.
The practice of hanging up stockings originated with Saint Nicholas. As the ancient legend goes, Saint Nicholas was known to throw small bags of gold coins into the open windows of poor homes. After one bag of gold fell into the stocking of a child, news got around. Children soon began hanging their stocking by their chimneys “in hopes that St. Nicholas soon would be there”.
It wasn’t until the 1800’s that the spirit of St. Nicholas’ life evolved into the creation of Santa Claus. And, this happened in North America. Santa Claus emerged (or evolved) from the stories and legends of St. Nicholas. Santa Claus was kind and generous to children. Unlike “St. Nick”, Santa Claus is largely a non-religious character.
Celebrate St. Nicholas Day with a batch of Dutch Pepernoten Cookies
- 100 g soft butter
- 125 g brown sugar
- 2 tsp speculaas spices (see recipe below)
- pinch of salt
- 250 gram self-raising flour
- 2-4 tbsp milk
- Cream butter, sugar, spices and salt together.
- Add the self-raising flour, mix well.
- Add milk a tsp at a time, mixing after each bit. When a smooth dough has formed, enough milk is added.
- Form the dough into a disk, wrap in cling film and leave to rest for at least one hour in the fridge.
- Roll small balls of the dough (diameter 1 cm), place on a lined baking tray (you need 2 for this amount of dough) about 2-3 cm apart (they will spread quite a bit).
- Bake for 15 minutes at 160C or until brown and crisp.