I still remember reading about Saint Nicholas Day for the first time almost two decades ago. I was spending the weekend at my parent’s farm and I happened upon a copy of a book entitled To Dance with God: Family Ritual and Community Celebrations by Gertrud Mueller Nelson. It has since become dear to me for its depth of treatment on ritual from both a spiritual and psychological perspective.
I was especially drawn in by the author’s description of her family’s incorporation of the feast of Saint Nicholas into their advent practice. What appealed to me immediately was being able to help my children focus more on the intangible aspects of the holiday season by teaching them about the compassionate Bishop of Myra from whom our western idea of Santa Claus is derived.
The legends about Saint Nicholas are numerous. The most well-known is the story of the poor man who did not have money for the dowries of his three daughters. In those days, women who were not able to be married were often forced into slavery. On three separate nights, it is said that mysterious bags of gold were dropped (by Saint Nicholas) through the window of the home, landing in stockings that were drying in the windowsill, thus saving the young women from their otherwise perilous fate.
There are many other accounts of the deeds of Saint Nicholas which have helped to form the image we now carry of a generous, loving, advocate of children who delighted in secret charity. The joyful act of surreptitious giving is what strikes me as the heart of this holiday. Although there are many ways to celebrate Saint Nicholas Day on December 6, I have included a few that I have practiced through the years that have been particularly meaningful.
We usually start by reading one of the many enchanting children’s books on Saint Nicholas Eve to set the mood. Some of my favorites are The Baker’s Dozen, by Aaron Shepard, and Saint Nicholas: The Real Story of the Christmas Legend, by Julie Stiegemeyer. A book that adults might enjoy for its wealth of history is Wonderworker: The True Story of how Saint Nicholas Became Santa Claus, by Vincent A. Yzermans.
As a baker, I enjoy the creation of the delicious spiced Speculaas cookies in the form of Saint Nicholas. Customarily, the cookies were baked in wooden molds, but those can be quite pricy. I use a cookie cutter which is much less costly. I have been to communal celebrations where simple gingerbread is baked in lieu of the cookies. The key is to find something that works for you and your family. I ordered my cookie cutter from a wonderful source of all things Saint Nick called The Saint Nicholas Center.
The following recipe is the one that I have used, although there are several variations. You may use it to cut out any shapes you desire. One fun thing that Nelson suggests (and that we have done) is to make awards for each family member in the shape of something they love. For an avid reader, you might make an award in the shape of a book, and the like.
Saint Nicholas Cookies (Speculatius or Speculaas)
1 cup shortening
2 cups sugar
4 eggs whole
¾ t. salt
2 tsp baking powder
4 cups flour
2 tsp allspice
2 tsp ginger
2 tsp nutmeg
2 tsp ground cloves
4 tsp cinnamon
Mini chocolate chips for eyes(if you are making St. Nick)
Blend together all wet ingredients first, mixing thoroughly. Then mix in dry ingredients and stir in. Knead in additional flour as needed until dough is no longer sticky. Put into plastic bag and chill for a good mount of time, at least an hour. Cut off a piece to work with and keep the rest chilled.
To cut out little shapes, you can roll out dough more thinly. If you would like to do the larger decorated cookies, roll out dough to about ¼ inch. After cutting out into desired shapes, put on greased cookie sheets.
Heat oven to 350 and bake for about 15 minutes or until golden brown. After cookies cool, you may ice them with the recipe below.
2 c. confectioner’s sugar
¼ t salt
1 t vanilla
1 ½ t water
You may simply frost the cookies or use a decorating bag to create detail. I used a bag with a small tip to make the moustache, cross, and crozier(staff) of Saint Nicholas.
Older children can help deliver the cookies to friends and neighbors on the evening before. This year my fifteen year old will be our neighborhood Saint Nick, helping to distribute goodies. The visits will certainly spark some interesting conversation and it is always fun to pass on the Saint Nicholas story in addition to building general good will in your community.
Before children go to bed for the night, they place their shoes under the windowsill. We as parents have the enjoyment of being the spirit of Saint Nicholas and putting gifts into the waiting shoes. Some ideas for small gifts are chocolate coins wrapped in golden foil, oranges, or other sweets. Such fun to see the delight the next morning.
The Feast of Saint Nicholas is an opportunity to prepare a hearty dinner of your choice and enjoy some time together. Cookie awards are passed out during this special meal. Family members feel valued as their unique gifts are recognized.
The family dinner is also a good time to introduce a family giving project. Perhaps an older neighbor just needs a visitor. Or you would like to participate in a wider charitable campaign, even one that will carry on throughout the year.
The key to a memorable Saint Nicholas Day is not the kind of cookies baked or gifts left in open shoes, although those things certainly make it more lively. Rather, remembering and embodying the spirit of the loveable Bishop through both clandestine and open giving, taking time to honor family members for their special qualities, and an added element of mischief are what make December 6 truly special to me.
* This article was originally published in Rhythm of the Home magazine. I have made a few minor changes. To see it in their archives go here.