We have always celebrated Saint Nicholas Day in my house. You know the drill: you put your shoes outside your bedroom door (or maybe the front door, or maybe by the fireplace) overnight, and when you wake up in the morning they’re filled with candy. What could be better?! But when my son was four years old, I realized we were doing it all wrong.
He woke up the morning of the Feast of Saint Nicholas, and my wife and I looked on smiling as our pajama-clad kindergartner pumped his fists in the air and screamed “Yes!” before dropping to his knees and overturning his light-up sneakers. I smiled at his excitement as I sipped my morning coffee. But I almost gagged as he said, “This shoe thing is pretty weird, but I’ll keep doing it if it means I get candy!”
Somewhere along the way, we had lost the meaning of St. Nicholas Day, a centuries-old Christmas tradition. Many common Christmas traditions like this one have storied histories and deeper meanings, but when we forget those meanings, they become just other weird things we do. When we dig into these deeper meanings, we end up with a richer and more vibrant experience of Christmas.
Let’s take a look at three historical Christmas traditions from around the world with histories that have the potential to unlock a richer Christmas experience for us.
First off, let me say that I wish we had Advent calendars like the ones we have today back when I was a kid. When I was a kid the Advent calendar was a simple cardboard box with a picture of a nice Nativity scene on the front with little pieces of cheap chocolate hidden behind each perforated door. Now you can purchase expensive calendars filled with small toys from your kids’ favorite company. It’s just not fair!
Here’s what you know: Advent calendars count down the days to Christmas.
Here’s what you might not know: Most Advent calendars don’t actually follow Advent!
See, the earliest Advent calendars were homemade, and some of the oldest ones surviving today are from Europe. Back when Advent calendars were handmade it was easier to make one reusable calendar going from December 1st through the 25th than it was to make a new one each year.
But the season of Advent technically begins on the fourth Sunday before Christmas. That means Advent can start as few as 22 days before Christmas and as many as 28 days before.
Is it a huge deal? Probably not. We don’t usually pay too much attention to the discrepancy in dates, and to be honest I think most of us are far more interested in the chocolate than the exact number of days in Advent. But it’s a great talking point with your family as you celebrate this widely held Christmas tradition.
So this Christmas, don’t just open the door on the front of your calendar. Remember that December isn’t just a countdown to Christmas, it’s a season all unto itself! Advent is a season of preparation and waiting for Christmas, and the more we enter into the season of Advent, the richer our experience of Christmas will be.
You’ve seen them before. Set in the center of the dinner table, the wreath holds four candles that the family lights at dinner each night, adding one candle week by week until Christmas.
The first thing most of us notice is the color change in the candles. Three are purple and one is pink. At some point I’m sure many of you became curious and learned that on the third week we light the pink candle, which represents the joy of Jesus’ birth. Yup, that’s what we know.
But did you know there are symbols behind the other candles too? They even have names!
Week one symbolizes hope and is called the Prophet’s Candle. It reminds us that Jesus is coming soon.
Week two symbolizes faith and is called the Bethlehem Candle. It reminds us of Mary and Joseph's journey to Bethlehem.
Week three is pink and symbolizes joy. It’s called the Shepherd’s Candle.
Week four symbolizes peace and is called the Angel’s Candle. It reminds us of the angel’s message on the night of Jesus’ birth: “Peace on earth, and good will towards men.”
If you don’t want the Advent wreath to become just another tradition you do and don’t know why, learn these names and reflect on these symbols during dinner when you light your candles. Read the Nativity story from the Gospel of Luke (Luke 2:1 - 20) with your kids and talk about the symbolism of each of the candles.
That will help us avoid this historical tradition becoming just another weird thing we do.
St. Nicholas’ Day
This little bit of information on the backstory of St. Nicholas’ Day that I’m going to share has less to do with a deeper meaning, and more to do with an interesting side note.
The story of St. Nicholas is fun to know and a great way to remind us and our kids that Christmas is about more than just presents.
St. Nicholas, the real-life historical figure from whom we get Santa Claus—Santa meaning Saint and Claus short for Nicholas—was a bishop of an ancient Greek town called Myra, in present-day Turkey. So how is he connected with leaving out shoes for candy?
St. Nicholas always had a love for the poor and would work for their benefit. The story goes that there was a poor man in town with no money for a dowry for his daughters. No dowry meant no marriage, which would have left his daughters to be sold into a life of servitude.
Late one night, St. Nicholas dropped a bag of money down the chimney of the family home, and through the passing of history this legend led us to our candy-filled shoes today.
Like the Advent calendar, you might not think you care too much about the backstory when there is chocolate involved, but ignoring the history of this tradition might just rob you of a richer Christmas experience.
The story of St. Nicholas is fun to know and a great way to remind us and our kids that Christmas is about more than just presents. It’s also about watching out for our fellow man, and being generous towards those less fortunate than us!
So there you have it. Three common Christmas traditions, three deeper meanings that you may not have known before. Keeping our eyes on the deeper meaning is a great way to ensure that we don’t get lost in the busyness and hullabaloo of an exciting time of year!