How Poles Celebrate St. Nicholas Day

drawing of St Nicholas, 19th century. Artist: Anon
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Dzien Świętego Mikołaja

St. Nicholas Day, which falls on Dec. 6, starts off the Christmas holidays in Poland.

This feast day was eagerly awaited by the children in my family. The night before, we hung up clean white stockings (some families' children set out freshly polished shoes) hoping they would be filled with nuts and tangerines and not coal.

But Who Is That Bearded Man?

St. Nicholas was the 4th-century Bishop of Myra in Lycia, what is now a province of Turkey.

He had a reputation for secret gift-giving and is associated in some countries with Santa Claus.

St. Nicholas Tradition in Poland

In Poland, St. Nicholas (Święto Mikołaj) is a saintly, dignified figure. He comes as a bishop in bright vestments, carrying a golden crozier that resembles a shepherd's crook, symbolizing, like shepherds with sheep, that the religious tend their flock of people. (Did you know candy canes originated as a symbol of a crozier? That's one story anyway.)

Descending from heaven with an angel helper, St. Nicholas travels on foot, on horseback or in a sleigh pulled by a white horse as he visits homes in the countryside.

Children are tested on their catechism and rewarded with chocolate-glazed, heart-shaped pierniczki or honey-spice cookies in the shape of St. Nicholas.

In some regions of Poland, most notably Wielkopolska, Poznań, it's the Starman who gives the gifts to the children, not St.

Nicholas. The Starman is a little more like Krampus than jovial and kindly old St. Nick. He threatens the children with a birch switch before opening a sack of presents to be passed around.

Gift Giving Can Be Confusing

On Christmas Eve, children eagerly await the end of the wigilia supper so they can unwrap their presents.

But this can be a little confusing. If St. Nicholas gives presents approximately three weeks before Christmas, who is responsible for the gifts received on Christmas Eve?

In the region of Lesser Poland (Małopolska, Kraków) and in Silesia, it is the baby Jesus or his messenger, a small angel, that brings the presents and, since they are invisible, their presence is signaled by the ringing of a bell. The children are supposed to remain silent during Christmas Eve dinner so that the small angels (gift givers) would not be afraid to enter the house.

St. Nicholas-Shaped Cookies

In the larger cities of Poland with big bakeries, pierniczki dough is cut out with St. Nicholas-shaped cookie cutters and then decorated with flat white icing to bring out the details. It is simple to make your own template made out of parchment or thin cardboard if you can't find a cutter to purchase.