Lifestyle

6 December Nikolinje: Celebration of St Nicholas Day in Croatia

By 6 December 2020
Nikolinje - St Nicholas Day in Croatia
Nikolinje - St Nicholas Day in Croatia

December 6, 2020 – Over much of the Christian world, 6 December is celebrated as St Nicholas Day. Croatia is no exception. Famous as the inspiration for Father Christmas, St Nicholas Day in Croatia is a time of gift-giving and tradition.

Nowadays, Croatian kids get gifts twice in December. Once on Christmas Day and also on 6 December, St Nicholas Day in Croatia (although, in some parts of southern and north-eastern Croatia, the traditional day of gift-giving is St. Lucia's Day - 13th December). On the evening of 5 December, children place their shoes or boots by the window, within easy reach of St Nicholas as he passes. When they wake on 6 December morning, they rush out of bed to see if St Nicholas has visited. If they've been good, their shoes might contain gifts like chocolates and sweets. If they've been bad, the shoes might contain a piece of birch wood or a rod – something with which they should be reprimanded. No youngster is all good or all bad. It's very common for Croatian children to receive both – a lighthearted acknowledgment of their changeable behaviour.

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St Nicholas by Jaroslav Čermák (1831 - 1878)

Saint Nicholas of Myra, also known as Nicholas of Bari, was an early Christian bishop of Greek descent from the maritime city of Myra in modern-day Turkey. He is thought to have lived between 270 – 343 AD, during the time of the Roman Empire. Little written evidence from the time of his life exists about St Nicholas, but he was persistently eulogised in writings and in art after his death and for hundreds of years afterward. There are three sources that mention Nicholas of Myra of Lycia being present in 325 at the First Council of Nicaea, convened by the Christian Roman Emperor Constantine I. Constantine is said to have freed Saint Nicholas from prison after he had been placed there by the preceding Emperor Diocletian.

Many stories about his life have made St Nicholas one of the most popular and celebrated of Christian saints. He is the patron saint of children, coopers, sailors, fishermen, merchants, broadcasters, the falsely accused, students repentant thieves, brewers, pharmacists, archers, pawnbrokers, unmarried people, Russia, Greece, Liverpool, Moscow and Amsterdam and many other places. St Nicholas is one of the most popular names for churches in the Croatian diaspora.

It is the secret giving of gifts that lies at St Nicholas's inspiration for Father Christmas, indeed the name Santa Claus is partially derived from Sinterklaas, Nicholas's name in Dutch. This reputation comes from one of the most consistently repeated tales about Nicholas's life.

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The Three Legends of St Nicholas by Gerard David, painted sometime in the 1450s. The picture shows St Nicholas anonymously leaving dowry money for the sleeping sisters.

It is said that Nicholas heard of a formerly wealthy devout man who had lost his money and could no longer afford dowries for his three daughters. This meant that they would remain unmarried and probably be forced into prostitution. Nicholas decided to help them and went to the house at night. He reached in and anonymously left a purse filled with gold coins, a dowry for the first daughter. After her wedding, Nicholas repeated his secret generosity for the next two sisters. In some tellings, Nicholas was discovered by the girls' father on his third visit and Nicholas told him he must remain silent about the identity of the gift giver. The story is so unique and so often retold, many historians believe that it must stem from some truth.

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St Nicholas Day in Komiza, Vis island © TZ Komiza

As the patron saint of fishermen and sailors, St Nicholas Day in Croatia is marked in some very distinct ways at different points on the coast. In the fishing village of Komiza, on Vis island, when a boat is in line with its Church of St Nicholas, sailors doff their hats, greet the saint, and pray, “Saint Nicholas help us with our voyage and fishing.” His statue is removed from the church on 6 December, St Nicholas Day in Croatia and leads a procession around the village. An old boat is set alight and burned as an offering.

sveti-nikola-baska-voda66.jpgThe statue of St Nicholas in Baska Voda sits next to the harbour. St Nicholas blesses all those who arrive or depart by boat © TZ Baska Voda

In Baška Voda, the impressive statue of Saint Nicholas sits by the waterside in the town centre, looking out to sea, his hand raised as he blesses all who visit and depart from Baška Voda by boat. Town residents gather by the statue on St Nicholas Day in Croatia.

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St Nicholas Day in Stari grad, Hvar Island © Vedran Janic

In Stari Grad on Hvar island, it's the eve of St Nicholas Day in Croatia which is the focus. They burn an old boat that night and, following a Mass for children, adult attendees throw apples down to the children from the choir gallery upstairs.

These days, the gift-giving of St Nicholas Day in Croatia is a token affair, marking tradition. But, in regards specifically to the exchanging of presents, St Nicholas Day in Croatia used to be the main event – Christmas Day was free of gift-giving, reserved as a day to mark the birth of Jesus Christ. Perhaps Christmas was better celebrated in this traditional way? Still, few kids in Croatia will complain about receiving gifts twice in the month of December.

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