On December 5th (or 6th) of each year, Saint Nicolas pays a visit to all the children in Eastern and Northern France, Belgium, the Netherlands, Germany, Austria and many parts of eastern Europe. In Flemish lore, he arrives on his donkey with his companion Le Père Fouettard (Father Whip). Saint Nick gives candy to the good kids while his companion kidnaps the kids who haven’t been so good. In Dutch, his companion is called Zwarte Piet (Black Peter), a dark skinned slave (possibly a Moor from North Africa or Spain). Although the traditions change from region to region, the day is nonetheless an important day for kids. Some kids leave their shoes out the night before to have them filled with coins or candy. In another variation, kids leave a carrot and turnip for the donkey; Saint Nicolas leaves an orange and a sweet in return.
In the neighborhood where I live in Lille, the local shop owners set up a stable for Saint Nicolas and his donkey and kids line up for literally hours for a chance to pay a couple euros to get a picture taken with him and receive a small bag of candy.
Although not celebrated in all of France, the North of France (once part of Flanders, Spain, and Burgundy at various times in history) is a bastion for Saint Nicholas. The real Saint Nicholas was a generous Catholic saint from Turkey who had a knack for secret gift-giving to those in need. The story migrated and adapted to the various regions where the saint continues to be celebrated on a special day for children. In Flanders, Saint Nicholas Day is celebrated with a parade of traditional giants. Children are given special St. Nick shaped chocolate. In the Netherlands and Flanders, special spice cookies are eaten. In Alsace, children receive an orange and some pain d’épices (gingerbread). And in Lorraine, where Saint Nicholas is the patron saint, there are parades, and St. Nick visits the schools and many families give gifts.
As in American culture, le Père Noël (Father Christmas) is the jovial fellow who slides down your chimney, eats your cookies and leaves you presents. Now say Santa Claus three times fast. It’s no coincidence that it sounds like Saint Nicholas. The American name comes from Sint Niklaas, the Dutch name for the Turkish Saint.
Somewhere along the way, American Christmas lore began using the two figures interchangeably when in fact they are different characters. Whereas Saint Nicholas is a historical figure, Father Christmas is the mythical figure associated with Christmas cheer. The legend of Santa Claus wearing red and white became intermingled with Coca Cola after the company used drawings of Saint Nicholas for an advertising campaign.
The overwhelming presence of Christmas in France can be troubling for some Americans since the American winter holiday season is not devoted to Christmas alone. Noël and Saint Nicolas is an important time of year in France, even to non-Christians. In the US, most public schools do not have Christmas vacation or have Christmas shows; they have winter vacation and winter holiday shows. Most American children do not come home from public school having discussed sapins de Noël (Christmas trees) without also having talked about Hanukkah, Diwali and Kwanzaa to name only a few. Most American children do not come home from public school singing songs about Santa coming down the chimney. In fact many American public schools have their winter celebration in January so that it is detached from the December holidays. The French holiday season then can seem a little shocking and even offensive to some expats. It took me over 10 years to not be offended that everyone just assumed I celebrated Christmas.
In France, it is all part of the culture, which is ironically secular since Noël and Saint Nicolas are religious by definition. Although there are still many French people who do not have Christmas trees or exchange gifts, an overwhelming number of people do, even the Communists, atheists and non-Christians.
In Lille, the school children bring home a bag filled with candy, a coquillesorcramique (which is NOT a brioche, as my daughter tells me) but is rather a special brioche-type pastry made only at Christmas time, and a holiday note signed by the mayor.
Back home in New Jersey, after we’d gorged ourselves on potato latkes and sung songs at our school’s winter assembly about candles for both Christmas and Hanukkah, my mother would bake gifts for our teachers.
Happy eating and happy holidays!