St. Nicholas Day is December 6th, but celebrations happen on St. Nicholas Eve as well. Celebrated throughout Europe, these days honor St. Nicholas, patron saint of Christmas, gift giving, and children.
Sinterklaas is an elderly, serious man with white hair and a long, full beard. He wears a long red cape or chasuble over a traditional white bishop’s alb and sometimes red stola, dons a red mitre and ruby ring, and holds a gold-coloured crosier, a long ceremonial shepherd’s staff with a fancy curled top. He traditionally rides a white horse. In the Netherlands, the horse is called Amerigo, and in Belgium, it is named Slecht Weer Vandaag, meaning “Bad Weather Today”. Sinterklaas carries a big book that tells whether each child has been good or naughty in the past year. He is one of the sources for the popular Christmas icon of Santa Claus.
In Belgium, children put their shoes near the hearth the night before in hopes that Sinterklaas will leave toys and trinkets in them as he rides by. The shoes are filled with carrots and sugar cubes for Slecht Weer Vandaag and a cup of coffee for Sinterklaas is placed next to them on St. Nicholas Eve. Gifts replace what was left. For children, this is the big gift-giving day. When they are older or grown up gifts are given on Christmas.
In the Netherlands, Sinterklaas Day is celebrated with children putting their shoes by the bed the night before St. Nicholas Day (called Sinterklaasavond or Pakjesavond) hoping that Sinterklaas, a jolly old elf, will fill them with presents and candy. Traditional Sinterklaas treats include hot chocolate, mandarin oranges, pepernoten, speculaas, letter-shaped pastry filled with almond paste or a chocolate letter (the first letter of the child’s name made out of chocolate), chocolate coins, and marzipan figures. Newer treats include gingerbread biscuits and a figurine of Sinterklaas made of chocolate and wrapped in colored aluminum foil.
Saint Nicholas’ Day, observed on December 6 (in Western Christian countries) and December 19 (in Eastern Christian countries), is the feast day of Saint Nicholas. It is celebrated as a Christian festival with gift-giving and attendance at mass.