Who is the man with a long white beard in December?
In many countries, there are two answers to that question.
Santa Claus delivers gifts at Christmas on Dec. 25.
Before that, people in many countries in Europe — from Belgium to Russia — celebrate St. Nicholas Day. It’s Dec. 6 in some western European countries, such as Belgium and Germany, and Dec. 19 in Eastern European countries, like Ukraine.
Many people in those countries celebrate both St. Nicholas Day and Christmas.
Unlike Santa, St. Nicholas was a real person born in the third century in what’s now Turkey. He was a bishop who became a Christian saint in the late 10th century.
In Germany, St. Nicholas Day isn’t a public holiday, but it’s celebrated widely with cheer. On the eve of St. Nicholas Day, or Nikolaustag, which is tonight (Dec. 5), children in Germany put out their boots or hang stockings outside their door. On the morning of Dec. 6, children (who have been good) wake to find their boots or stockings filled with chocolate, cookies, nuts or even small gifts like a scarf.
St. Nicholas Day has a dark side. A folkloric helper called Knecht Ruprecht in Germany or Krampus in some Central European countries often accompanies St. Nicholas to punish naughty children.
The half-goat, half-demon creature usually is portrayed as dark and hairy with horns, cloven hooves and a long, pointed tongue. You can see why this pagan mythological figure inspired a yuletide horror movie called “Krampus” in 2015.
In comparison, St. Nicholas often is portrayed as an elderly, benevolent soul in Western Europe, with a long, white beard, wearing a bishop’s mitre (a tall headdress) and holding a hooked staff.
Note: The featured photo at top is by Ben Kerckx via Pixabay.