St. Nick Who? And Why Are Milwaukeeans Celebrating Him?

Dec 6, 2019

On Dec. 25, Santa Claus will have shimmied down many chimneys and left presents under the tree. But on Dec. 6, some families celebrate another holiday, a tease of sorts until that day comes: St Nick's Day!

Depending on where you are in the world, St. Nick has many names, but the story is the same. In the U.S., he's celebrated in places with German or Dutch influence — like right here in Milwaukee.

So, who's St. Nick and where did this holiday come from? Dawn Omernik-Nimmer reached out to Bubbler Talk to find out.

"My son was in, I think first grade, and we were out at the bus stop and a neighbor kid came over and said, 'Hey, what'd you get for St. Nick's Day?' and both of us said, 'What?!' "

For some background, we talked to John Schaefer, the vice president of German Fest in Milwaukee. He says St. Nick was a Greek-born bishop who died on Dec. 6 in the fourth century. The holiday is rooted in Europe.

Icon of St. Nicholas.
Credit Lindom / stock.adobe.com

"This Nicholas was known for producing small miracles and being kind to children, orphans, widows and became the patron saint of merchants, and so on and so forth," he says.

John says European immigrants brought their St. Nick traditions here.

There's an online center based out of Holland, Mich., dedicated to all things St. Nicholas. President and Founder Carol Myers shares one of St. Nick's stories:

"The most well-known story is about a man who had fallen on hard times and could no longer care for his family. He had three daughters of marriageable age but was unable to provide dowries. So, the daughters were going to be sold to slavery," she says.

St. Nicholas visited the man's house three times tossing gold through the window for the dowry money. Which might explain why children would get chocolate coin candy as gifts.

To prepare for St. Nick's visit, Carol says it often starts with shoes.

"In many parts of Europe, people polish their shoes so they're very clean – their shoes and boots – and put them on the doorstep or the window sill to be filled," she says.

That's still common today, and people might also put out stockings.

In the U.S., St. Nick's Day is celebrated in areas with German or Dutch influence. Don't worry, you don't have to have wooden clogs to participate in St. Nick's Day.
Credit soupstock / stock.adobe.com

Carol also says the traditional treats are fruit, nuts and candy. But some Milwaukee residents, like Angela Harris, remember getting more than that.

"My mom would make a box where it was like my Christmas pajamas, there would be a movie that I wanted, and like a mug or something for hot chocolate," Angela says. She also carried on the tradition with her children, giving them some of the same gifts she received as a child.

Robert Dumville says, "We would put out a shoe by the front door and we'd leave a carrot or an apple for his horse. And in exchange, he would leave some sort of citrus fruit like an orange or a tangerine, and some sort of sweet or little chocolate. And usually, at least in our house, something to keep you warm."

Katie Meissner continues to celebrate St. Nick's Day with her daughters.
Credit Katie Meissner

Theresa Marian says she remembers Święty Mikołaj — that's St. Nicholas in Polish — as the start of the Polish Christmas holiday. She'd get a decorative Santa cup shaped like Santa's head and chocolate.

When Theresa continued the tradition with her children, she made them embroidered, felt stockings ... that she's kept to this day. Theresa's daughter, Katie Meissner, says St. Nick's Day was even more magical than Christmas.

"We always got the same candy every year. We got a storybook, like Life Savers candy set. We'd get a candy cane full of like Hershey's Kisses. And then we'd just get like regular candy canes. And then there was always some sort of special toy, like something small that just fit in the stocking," Katie explains.

Katie continues the St. Nick's Day tradition with her daughters and says she hopes they'll do the same.

If you missed the celebration this year, no worries. Now that you know a little more about St. Nick's Day, you have plenty of time to prep for his visit next December.