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Culture

A Shoe Full of Surprises

On December 6, children in Germany and Holland awake to find their shoes stuffed with Christmas goodies - St. Nicholas was visiting.

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Ho, ho, ho

Saint Nicholas is a popular figure in Europe: around 400 churches in Britian alone are named after the saint. He is known to be the patron saint of all those in trouble – whether sailors, maidens or poor children.

He was born in Myra, a town on the coast of what is now Turkey. According to legend, Nicholas gave money to three young sisters, who had suitors but no dowries, so that they could marry.

But as Nicholas was rather shy, he decided on giving them what they needed anonymously. Both the first, and the second of the sisters received a bag of gold without anyone finding out where it came from.

But by the time the third sister was ready to marry, their father, a poor nobleman, was determined to find out who was helping them. He hid himself just in time for Nicholas' arrival, and caught Nicholas shoving a bag of gold down the chimney. The bag then got stuck in a stocking which was hanging on the fireplace to dry.

It didn't take long for the secret to come out. Some 600 years later, the Russian Emperor Vladimir visited Constantinople and heard all about Nicholas' wonderful deeds. He then decided to make Nicholas the patron saint of Russia.

Nicholas died on December 6 either 345 AD or 352 AD. Because the anniversary of his death is so close to Christmas, the stories of St. Nicholas and Christmas blend together.

But in Germany and the Netherlands, December 6 is still celebrated. Here, children leave an empty shoe out on the night of December 5, hoping that Nicholas will fill it with goodies.

Sweet treats

Little chocolate St. Nicholas figures and marzipan balls are favorite shoe stuffers among young and old alike. Those worried about cavities and calories often find tangy oranges, tart apples and assorted nuts in their shoes.

In the Netherlands, the evening of the 5th is always initiated with a round of fluffy almond pastries shared among friends and family. In Germany a visit to the punch stand at the local Christmas market with friends is a popular way to round out the evening of the 6th.

In appearance the German and Dutch St. Nicholas looks similar to Santa Claus or Father Christmas. He has a flowing white beard, dresses in a long red velvet cloak, wears black boots and carries a sack. Unlike Santa Claus, St. Nicholas goes from house to house by foot and not in a sleigh pulled by reindeer.

St. Nicholas is also all-knowing and wise. He knows which little girls and boys have been naughty or nice. And he doesn't have to think twice about what to put in their shoe: the good ones get candy and the bad ones coal and twigs.

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