It’s almost that time of year again: children place their boots outside the front door full of anticipation and are over the moon the next day when they see the sweet contents.
But where does this tradition come from? And why do some children hang up socks instead of placing their boots outside the door?
The 6th of December is St. Nicholas’ Day. This is the day that Saint Nicholas, the Bishop of Myra, one of the most famous saints from the Catholic Church died. He lived in the first half of the fourth century and is supposed to have completed many good deeds and even miracles.
The legend that led to today’s custom of placing boots outside the door is that of the dowry donation. According to legend, in his day Saint Nicholas, before he was a bishop but when he was already very wealthy, helped poor families in need.
A man with three daughters had so little money that he could not pay the dowry for their marriage. He thought that the only way out was to sell his daughters as maids. Nicholas lived in the family’s neighbourhood and found out about their dire straits. Over the three consecutive nights he threw golden nuggets to the daughters through the window so that they could get married. On the last night, he was seen by the girls’ father who thanks Nicholas and promised to keep the secret to himself. Just before his death the father revealed the mystery of the dowry donation. In the meantime Nicholas had been appointed as Bishop of Myra and had carried out more good deeds and miracles.
This story of Saint Nicholas ultimately led to the establishment of the custom of boots being laid out. In Germany, children place their boots outside the door on the eve before St. Nicholas’ Day. In some families, it is dealt with very strictly and only well polished winter boots are filled by Nicholas, in some though slippers or something similar are topped up with gifts and sweets. However, occasionally a piece of coal can also be found in not so carefully polished shoes.
In the English-speaking region, a version of the Saint Nicholas legend has spread according to which Nicholas threw the dowry donation into the family’s house down the chimney where they landed in the girls’ stockings that they had hung up to dry. That’s why socks are hung up on the fireplace in England instead of placing their boots outside the door.
However, there is also the Nicholas who visits children during the day. He often goes to kindergartens or primary schools and is usually accompanied by an assistant. Depending on the region, Knecht Ruprecht the Krampus or even an angel. Children look forward to Nicholas visiting and also fear him at the same time as Nicholas asks each child the well-known question about their behaviour: “Have you also been really good?” This question goes back to a Medieval custom: In some convent or monastery schools the children chose a children’s bishop on St. Nicholas Day who was allowed to criticise the adults’ behaviour. Nowadays though it is the children who are questioned about their behaviour again.
Occasionally Nicholas does not even have to rely on the child’s answer when asking this question; sometimes he can also find out about their behaviour in his golden book. In the past, children were threatened with his companion’s rod if they had behaved badly, although Nicholas could always be appeased quickly with the recital of a poem or promise of better behaviour.
The good and even reformed children are then presented with nuts, fruit and other little gifts from Nicholas’ sack.
When though personal contact with Nicholas surely inspires more respect than merely placing boots outside the door in joyful anticipation, one thing is certain: all children await St. Nicholas’ Day full of anticipation, making the wait for the big presents at the end of Advent a little bit easier.