Painting: Feast of St. Nicholas by Jan Steen, 1660-1665.
Taken from http://www.wikipaintings.org/en/jan-steen/feast-of-st-nicholas-1665
In medieval period the legend of St Nicholas continued to develop and spread enormously, especially after translation of his relics to Bari. With the spread of the legends about his miracles, he became known as the patron of sailors and a special protector of children, becoming later a traditional gift-giver for the little ones. In many countries Nicholas was celebrated as the patron saint of maidenhood, and also students considered him their protector.
In the Middle Ages students had a tradition on St Nicholas’ Day to elect one of them as “bishop”, who would rule until the end of December and take part in the celebration of the Holy Innocents' Day on December, 28 (this feast was dedicated to commemoration of the infants of Bethlehem executed by the king Herod in the fear to lose his throne to a newborn King of Jews, who was Jesus Christ). In medieval period some countries of the Western Europe celebrated this day by performing parodic religious ceremonies accompanied by pranks, dancing and jumping in the church. The young “bishops”, chosen on St Nicholas’ Day, also acted as “pranksters”, who in the folk tradition represented the innocent souls, and thus were not criticized for their naughty behaviour.
On St Nicholas’ Day also celebrations similar to Carnival were practiced, with dressing and acting out some events from the bishop’s life. During the feast St Nicholas was often portrayed by a man dressed in red and white bishop’s robes, riding on the back of the donkey to children’s homes and leaving on the hearth gifts for them (fruit, nuts, candies and small figurines). In many regions this day was an occasion to help the poor, putting money in their shoes.
During the Reformation protestants did everything they could to erase the popularity of saints, and first of all of St Nicholas, as he was most beloved by the Christians. Anyway, despite St Nicholas’ celebration was removed from the church, it continued living in the streets and homes. Thus, in a lot of countries the tradition developed in local versions, merging with pagan customs, and St Nicholas came to be known by different names.
Only in the Low Countries including the Netherlands and Belgium the celebration was officially kept as “Sinterklaas” (Saint Nicholas in Dutch), and from there was moved to America with the Dutch immigrants. Also German descendants revived the tradition in America, and finally St Nicholas came to be known there as Santa Claus. This new tradition, connected to gift-giving and Christmas celebration, moved in the 19th century back to Europe as English Father Christmas.
Picture: one of the earliest depictions of Santa Claus on the cover of Harper's Weekly, from January 3, 1863. Author: Thomas Nast, for Harper's Weekly.
Taken from http://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Harpers_1863_01-_thomas-nast-santa-claus.jpg
Today in European countries St Nicholas is honoured on December 6 (or December 20 in the Orthodox Christian tradition). The feast combines religious processions and the tradition of secret gift-giving to the children. In reality the little gifts are usually provided by parents or are brought by a man in costume portraying St Nicholas. In the child’s belief the Saint arrives by night, together with his assistant, checking in the book how the child behaved during the past year and leaving gifts for him if he was good. The traditions concerning the appearance of Nicholas and his companions, the way he delivers the gifts, traditional festive dishes differ from country to country. Nowadays the tradition of collecting donations and gifts for the orphans becomes more spread in this period.