The Feast of Saint Nicholas
The feast of Saint Nicholas takes place in most western nations on the anniversary of his death, December 6th. And while its origins and relationship to the previous evening's Krampusnacht might have begun in our far pagan past, the person for whom the feast is named was very much a Christian.
Saint Nicholas was simply Nicholas when he was born in third century Greece. The future saint was raised as a devout Christian by his wealthy parents, and when they died in his youth, Nicholas decided to emulate Jesus and use his inheritance to help the needy. He dedicated his life to the Church and was eventually made Bishop of Myra while still a young man. Bishop Nicholas was known for his generosity, love of children, and concern for sailors and ships.
The popular Christian bishop was persecuted by the Roman Emperor Diocletian, who imprisoned and exiled Nicholas. Bishop Nicholas attended the Council of Nicaea in 325 AD, and died eighteen years later in 343 AD. Saint Nicholas was interred in his cathedral, where it is claimed a special liquid relic with great healing properties--called manna--formed in his grave; the formation of which did much to encourage his veneration.
The centuries following the saint's death saw the wide circulation of many stories surrounding his miraculous deeds. One such story that relates specifically to the holiday season is that, so it is told, on three separate occasions Saint Nicholas tossed bags of gold through the windows of a poor man in order to provide a dowry for the man's daughters, lest they be sold into slavery; some of the bags are said to have landed in stockings and shoes, which may have contributed to the tradition of leaving such items out to receive gifts from him.
Traditional ways of celebrating Saint Nicholas' feast include: leaving out a stocking or shoe to receive presents from the saint; the exchange of candies, chocolate initial letters, and small gifts; and riddles.