December 6th is the feast day of Saint Nicholas, the patron saint of children, which appropriately falls during the Advent season. This feast day is an especially exciting one for children as they count down the days on their Advent calendars in anticipation of Christmas day.
St. Nicholas of Myra is a major saint in many European and Eastern countries, and one of the old Christian traditions surrounding his feast day is for kids to leave their shoes out overnight in front of the fireplace, on the windowsill, or outside their bedroom door so that St. Nicholas can fill them with special fruits, candies, and other small gifts and treats.
This tradition grew from the story of when St. Nicholas, the Bishop of Myra, threw bags of dowry money, either through a window or down a chimney, into the home of an impoverished family to rescue their daughters from being sold into slavery. This was just one of his many acts of good will and charity towards the poor, especially poor children.
While Catholics in America aren't as big on celebrating this feast day with their children, more and more American Catholic families are adopting St. Nicholas Day as a special Advent family tradition, like this family here and here.
Ideas to include in your children's shoes are bags of chocolate candy coins, a small toy, new socks, a tangerine, and inexpensive religious items, such as a Christmas ornament, a rosary, saint bracelet, and prayer cards. You can find St. Nicholas Catholic gifts here. You can also include candy canes which symbolize a shepherd's staff, and even have a little fun by re-shaping them into a bishop's crosier (see below).
Another cute part of this tradition is for kids to leave carrots or hay in their shoes overnight for St. Nicholas' donkey to eat. St. Nicholas takes the hay and carrots for his donkey, and replaces them with small gifts and treats for the children in the morning.
Yes . . . St. Nicholas was known to ride a donkey laden with gifts for children before he graduated to flying reindeer!
St. Therese of Lisieux describes this tradition in her home in France as a small child and recounts how much she loved it. However, for her family this happened not on St. Nicholas Day but on Christmas Eve (similar to our American tradition of hanging the stockings by the fireplace).
"I knew that when we reached home after Midnight Mass I should find my shoes in the chimney-corner, filled with presents, just as when I was a little child . . . Papa, too, liked to watch my enjoyment and hear my cries of delight at each fresh surprise that came from the magic shoes, and his pleasure added to mine." ~ St. Therese of Lisieux, Story of a Soul
St. Nicholas' feast day traditions vary widely from country to country, but they all carry the same theme of small gifts and treats left in either shoes or stockings.
Continuing this Advent tradition in your own home is a great way to teach your children to venerate the saints and to deepen their knowledge of and love for the Christian faith.
Have fun reading about the variety of some of these stories here as families share their own St. Nicholas day traditions past and present.
BLESSING OF THE CANDY CANES ON ST. NICHOLAS DAY
Another tradition that's becoming fun to do with small children is the St. Nicholas Day Blessing of the Candy Canes. The prayer below is a beautiful reflection of Catholic faith.
St. Nicholas Day Candy Cane Blessing Prayer
Good St. Nicholas, we honor you
on this your holy feast day.
We rejoice that you are the patron saint
and the holy symbol of joy
for many peoples of many lands.
Come, great-hearted saint,
and be our patron and companion
as we, once again, prepare our homes and hearts
for the great feast of Christmas,
the birth of the Eternal Blessing, Jesus Christ.
May these sweets, these candy canes,
be a sign of Advent joy for us.
May these candy canes,
shaped just like your Bishop's staff,
be for us a sign of your benevolent care.
We rejoice that you are the holy bringer of gifts
and that so many have been delighted
through your great generosity.
Help us to be as generous of heart.
Wherever these candy canes are hung,
on tree or wall or door,
may they carry with them
the bright blessing of God.
May all who shall taste them
experience the joy of God
upon their tongues and in their hearts.
We ask God, now, to bless
these your brightly striped sweets
in the name of the Father,
and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.
This article has been updated and was originally published in December 2012. © The Catholic Company. All rights reserved.