Our St. Nicholas Tradition

Ushering in the meaning of the season

We started celebrating Saint Nicholas day while we lived in Germany. On the night of December fifth, all the German kids put a shoe outside of their doors for St. Nicholas to put a few treats in. We have co opted this tradition to help kick off our holidays with more gratitude and generosity. The German St. Nicholas tradition is  similar to hanging up stocking in the US. Except that Saint Nick comes early in Europe.

German St Nick traditions

Initially, I liked the idea of giving St. Nick his day separate from Christmas and spreading out the gift giving a bit. After all the big gifts of Christmas, the stocking gifts are often less celebrated. But on December 6th, the kids go wild at the idea of getting a few little treats so early in the month.

The tradition is built around the story of Saint Nicolas. Beings he lived in the 1300’s his historical details are fuzzy. But it is from him that we have arrived at our modern day Santa. His story started with less North Pole, flying reindeer and elves. But it did have giving gifts to children. Especially children in need. He was said to use his wealth (not magic) to help children in poverty.

So that is the story line we go with in our home. Less sleighs and talking snowmen, and more focus on using our hard work and blessings to be a blessing for others. So we tell our slightly made up, kid version of the original Saint Nicholas. How he used his wealth to help other kids. We tell this story as our way of ushering in the holiday season with a focus on others. We let the kids know they receive these little gifts as a reminder to be a blessing to others in this holiday season. They are thrilled for a few special pieces of candy, and it serves as a catalyst to start talking about charitable giving.

We have done different things each year. When we lived in Germany we would travel to Hungary to bring gifts to children and teens in an orphanage there. We developed great friendships from the time we spent there, a few which we continue today. Sometimes we put together a Christmas box that is shipped to kids in other parts of the world via Samaritan’s purse. Some years we have picked a name from the Angel Tree program. Or we look through a gift catalog that most organizations put out with gift ideas that benefit kids around the world.

The kids use a little bit of their own money to help buy these gifts for other kids. I wrote about the lessons we are teaching our kids.  One of those lessons being: Our kids can have a powerful impact in other people’s lives because of their generosity.

Our kids don’t have to wait till they have huge 401ks to impact the world. They can create a positive impact right now. If they are running low on cash, I will give them little jobs to help earn the money. Even my 3 year old is great at wiping off the coffee table with a baby wipe. $1 might be overpaying, but it helps her learn that we earn the money we give. And even at 3, she can work, earn and create an impact in someone else’s life.

It’s easy for kids to become consumed with receiving over the holiday season. So we kick it off with the idea of Santa beginning the example of generosity that we follow. Christmas becomes a time when we can have an impact in other kids’ lives.

So tonight all our kids will be setting out their shoes. Tomorrow, in the morning, we will tell stories that bring the season into focus. We will do a little bit of extra work, set aside some extra money and reflect on all the blessing we already have.  Then we will let the kids decide how they want to make an impact in someone else’s life.

We shall see what they decide to pick this year. I have already heard rumblings of two soccer balls for kids oversees, or perhaps some ducks. Although the ducks feels a bit spiteful to me. Like, “We have to do this stupid duck job, so let’s make other kids have to do a duck job also!” We still have a bit of work to do, obviously.

After 7 years of doing this, I never regret infusing more gratitude and generosity into our holidays. I hope it’s something our kids carry with them into adulthood. That might be the best Christmas gift I can give them.


How do you kick off the season? Any traditions that you make sure you do every year?

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19 thoughts on “Our St. Nicholas Tradition

  1. My parents also celebrated St. Nick’s Day with us, but I’d forgotten about it since moving out of the house. Maybe I’ll start it up again with my husband. It’s a great way to jumpstart those warm fuzzy Christmas feels!

    • I had never heard of it till we lived in Germany. Then every single person I knew celebrated it. It’s nice to spread out the gifts a bit. Although we keep it really small. This year I spent about $10 for all 5 kids. A little bit of candy, and each one small gift from the dollar store. My girls are obsessed with notebooks, so they are each getting one of those, and the boys are getting a few star wars cards. =)

    • I let the kids pick what they are most interested in each year, especially now that we have older ones. It gives them a bit of ownership. They have done the shoe box a few times and really like that. We shall see what they come up with this year. =)

  2. I love the way you’ve combined the gift-giving tradition with teaching about charity. We’ve focused on setting aside money each week for charity, and Little Bit will be finding the home for the contents of her giveaway jar soon. I’m hoping it will go to Backpack Buddies (food for food-insecure kids during breaks and weekends) like it did last year but she’s mentioned the American Heart Association several times.

    • I love it when kids get involved in picking the charities. It’s such a great habit to start young. We have the kids give consistently, but also do this once a year gift. Both habits are great. It’s been fun to see how the tradition has taken root over the years. They start talking about their big gift in November now as the charity gift catalogs start showing up at our door.

  3. Thanks for sharing your St. Nick tradition! What a fantastic idea! I bet your kids are so excited today.

    My daughter’s birthday is Dec. 6 and one year she gave all her gifts to Toys for Tots. I know it wasn’t an easy thing to do, but so generous (and she got the BEST gifts that year since everyone knew she was donating them).

    • That is incredible your daughter did that. I have hear of kids requesting pet food for shelters as well, which is really sweet. I always feel bad bringing gifts to kids parties, because you know the parents and grandparents are already buying the gifts the kids really want. So then you add 10 mediocre gifts and the clutter is overwhelming.

  4. Sinterklaas, as we call it in Belgium, is a key event for the girls. They really look forward to it and are at the same to.e a little insecure on the message he has for them.

    Turning it into a giving to people who need it more is a great idea.

    • It is a fun way to start that conversation. They kids have each received some candy and a little gift, so they are feeling happy and generous. =) Plus they love being able to pick the thing they want to donate towards. I loved European Christmas! Every little town was so festive with markets and craft fairs and amazing food vendors. I would love to do a tour of Europe in December. Each country celebrates a little different, but all so much fun. Ordering stuff off Amazon or going to the mall just isn’t the same as a hot mug of spiced wine in a festival.

  5. This is such a fun tradition and I can’t say I was overly familiar with it. As a kid my family opened up advent calendars but “outgrew” it over the years. My wife and I are still trying to decide what traditions we’d like to have with our family. But I will definitely be adding this one to the list to discuss. Thanks for sharing!!!

    • Advent calendars are another fun one. It took us quite a few years to settle in on what we wanted to do as a family. We kind of just “skipped” the holidays for the first few years we were married, because I needed some time reset. Over the years we have slowly adding things we like back in.

  6. Beautiful tradition! And I love the philosophy behind it. You’re right, it is so easy for kids to think Christmas is about them getting gifts. Tomorrow, I’m taking my 5-year-old to help with set-up for a low-income kids’ program Christmas store. The kids earn “dollars” for the store through the after school program, doing homework, etc. Then they can shop for gifts and necessities for their families. We are also hoping to visit a nursing home, hand out cookies, and visit with the residents. He also chips in for gifts we get our sponsored children abroad. He is still very focused on the gifts he’ll receive, but I’m hoping the cumulative effect will be a generous spirit!

    • We try to pull a few different things into our traditions. Kids receiving gifts is still about 20% of the holiday for them, but it’s not the only thing. We try not to overwhelm our schedule, but make a little time for other fun traditions. That Christmas store is a cool idea! I would love to see something like that in our schools. There are so many low income families.

  7. “Our kids don’t have to wait till they have huge 401ks to impact the world.”

    What a wonderful sentiment, Ms. M. May your version of St. Nicholas Day spread throughout Montana and the United States. We can never have enough gratitude and generosity in this world.

    • Our 3rd graders is using this own money to help buy a gift for a local child with his school class. Each kid was asked to bring $1 to school, but he really wanted to use one of his own dollars. He is so excited to help buy this little kid a present. It warms my mama heart. Our boys work so hard for that money (3 loads of laundry earns them $1.) So it means a lot to him.

  8. Love this – all of it! I’m still trying to figure out the right opportunity for my kids to give this year. I wanted to do a shoebox, but we missed the deadline. There are plenty of charities that collect toys and winter clothing, but I want the kids to be more personally involved – so they can see the difference they will make in someone’s life. Please feel free to send me any ideas. Christmas is coming up so fast!

    • There are usually Angel Tree’s that you can pick a gift idea from. If you check your local CASA office (Court appointed Advocates), a LOT of kids go into foster care in December. It’s a stressful time for many families and often is the tipping point for drug and alcohol abuse. But what happens when a kid gets placed with a foster family a day or two before Christmas? The CASA office likes to be able to help these last minute placements. Even a stuffed animal or coloring books that the new CASA volunteer can bring to the child as they wait at the CPS office while the caseworker calls dozens of families to find a home. We once received a call at 1am on December 23rd for a 12 year old boy who might need a place to go the next morning. Holy crap. How does a person pull that off? That kids Christmas is going to suck no matter what. But how can we make it a little bit better? You could call them and see if there is anything they are in need of. =)

  9. Ms Mt, I love this! We have a one year old so we’re just starting to talk about what traditions we want to create with our kids, especially ones that aren’t ON the actual holidays as to spread out the fun (and the parent’s to do list!). This is definitely going on our plan. I love how your kids take ownership of how your family is going to help someone else each holiday season.

    This would be a fun series – ideas of frugal traditions that the MMA family does each year! Like the cherry picking, too…they don’t have to be holiday related.

    A couple others that we have talked about doing are as a family are a fish fry each Friday during Lent and visiting a retirement community on Valentine’s Day.

    As always, thanks for the inspiration!