Friday, December 5, 2014

Winter Holidays in Eastern Europe: St Nicholas Day in Ukraine and Poland

St Nicholas Day, painting on glass by Yaroslava Surmach Mills, 1975.  In the painting, a Ukrainian St Nicholas is with an angel and a devil.  Notice the boy on the right with a branch in his hand.  He appears to be crying, probably because a gift of a willow branch means that his behavior needs to improve.

St Nicholas Day is a children's holiday.  It is celebrated in December, either on the sixth or the nineteenth, depending on people's religious affiliation.
Saint Nicholas, who lived in the fourth century, was the Bishop of Myra in Lycia, which today is in Turkey.  He is known as the patron saint of children, agriculture and sailors.  
Icon of St Nicholas, the patron saint of mariners.

He is one of the most popular saints in Ukraine, his icon is displayed in Ukrainian homes and churches. Many Ukrainian Orthodox and Catholic churches are named in his honor.  St Nicholas Day is a very old festival,coming to Ukraine with Christianity in the tenth century.

Ukrainian postage stamp showing parents putting gifts under their child's pillow, with St Nicholas watching through the window.

Saint Nicholas, known to Ukrainian children as Svyaty Mykolay, wears a bishop's mitre and carries a crozier.  When he visits, he is accompanied by an angel and occasionally, a devil.  He brings gifts to children, usually fruit and cookies.  Sometimes the angel quizzes the children about religious subjects, and St Nicholas reminds them to do good deeds.   In some areas, St Nicholas comes after the children are asleep and leaves small gifts under their pillow. He might leave a willow branch under the pillow to encourage a child to be on his/her best behavior. In other areas, the children leave their empty shoes and St Nicholas fills them with goodies for  the good children and coal for the bad. Many churches put on plays and pageants about St Nicholas, telling his story, and encouraging children do good.  

St Nicholas Pageant, 1912.  St Nicholas Ukrainian Catholic Church, Mahony, PA

My first and only encounter with St Nicholas was in St Paul, Minnesota.  I was a  young child, and my grandparents recruited a relative to dress as St Nicholas.  When he came into their living room, dressed in bishop's vestments, and I began to cry out in fear.   The next year, Santa Claus came down the chimney and left gifts under the tree.  St Nicholas never reappeared.

St Nicholas visits the children of the Svitlychka Ukrainian Cooperative Nursery School, Jenkintown, PA.

In old Ukraine,  St Nicholas Day took two forms.  One was warm Nicholas,  his festival was the twenty-second of May.  This was an agricultural celebration, since St Nicholas was also the patron saint of farming.  Farmers would take their horses to the fields for their first grazing, sheep would be sheared and buckwheat sown.  It was also believed that St Nicholas would protect livestock from wolves.  

St Nicholas Icon from Holy Spirit Ukrainian Orthodox Sobor, Regina, SK.

The other form of St Nicholas was "old" or "cold" Nicholas," celebrated in December. Saint Nicholas day heralded the beginning of cold winter weather.  Folk beliefs said that old Nicholas brought the first snow by shaking his beard.

In Poland, St Nicholas comes riding a white horse or rides in a sleigh.  He is accompanied by an angel.  He usually brings a special cookie called a pierniczki, fruit and holy pictures.  In some homes he leaves gifts under the children's pillow, in others he leaves them in their shoes. Some Polish children write to St Nicholas asking for gifts.  If they are well behaved, the gifts may arrive on Christmas day.

Polish children and St. Nicholas. The Polish St Nicolas wears a Roman Catholic bishop's mitre, the Ukrainian saint wears an Eastern Rite mitre.