primary gift giving day. In many places Saint Nicholas is the main gift giver. In some places Saint Nicholas arrives in the middle of November and visits schools and homes in the countryside to find out if children have been good.
In other places people have parties on the eve of 5th December and he visits during the night.
Children leave their wish lists for him, as well as carrots and hay for his horse or donkey. In exchange he leaves small treats like gifts, fruit or nuts, and special Nicholas candies and cookies in shoes or stockings so that the children will know he was there. St. Nicholas gifts are meant to be shared, not hoarded for oneself.
The true story of Santa Claus begins with Nicholas, who was born during the third century AD in the village of Patara (now part of Turkey but previously part of Greece). While Nicholas was still young, his wealthy parents died in an epidemic. Nicholas wanted to follow the instructions of Jesus, namely to "sell what you own and give the money to the poor." He spent his whole inheritance to assist the needy, the sick, and the suffering. Nicholas became well-known for his generosity to those in need, his love for children, and his concern for sailors and ships.
There are many stories about the life and actions of Saint Nicholas. One story tells of a poor man who had three daughters. In those days a young woman's father had to offer prospective husbands a dowry, or valuable gift. The larger the dowry, the better the chance that a young woman would find a good husband. Without a dowry, a woman was unlikely to marry and would probably be sold into slavery. Mysteriously, on three different occasions, a bag of gold was tossed through an open window into their home and provided the needed dowries. The bags of gold are said to have landed in stockings or shoes left before the fire to dry. This is the origin of the custom where children hang stockings or put out shoes so that Saint Nicholas can fill them with gifts.
In some versions the story has gold balls instead of bags of gold. That is why three gold balls are one of the symbols for St. Nicholas. St. Nicholas is the patron and protector of children, and also the patron of sailors and voyagers. Within a century of his death Nicholas was declared a Saint. Today he is honoured in the East as a miracle worker and in the West as patron of a great variety of persons -children, mariners, bankers, pawn-brokers, scholars, orphans, labourers, travellers, merchants, judges, paupers, marriageable maidens, students, children, sailors, victims of judicial mistakes, captives, perfumers, even thieves and murderers. He is known as the friend and protector of everyone in trouble or need.
Nicholas was so widely revered that more than 2,000 churches were named for him, including three hundred in Belgium, thirty-four in Rome, twenty-three in the Netherlands and more than four hundred in England. In Germany and Poland, boys dressed as bishops begged alms for the poor. In the Netherlands and Belgium, Saint Nicholas arrives on a steamship from Spain to ride a white horse on his gift-giving rounds.
In the Netherlands Saint Nicholas Eve is celebrated on the 5th December of the day, when people share sweets, the letters of their initials in chocolate, small gifts, and riddles. Dutch children leave carrots and hay in their shoes for the Saint's horse, and expect Saint Nicholas to leave for small gifts in exchange. Because gifts are exchanged so long before Christmas, the focus on Christmas day is on the Christ Child rather than the gifts.