Who was the Real Saint Nicholas, also known as St. Nick, Santa Claus? And...How is Saint Nicholas Remembered in the Czech Republic?
It is late evening, somewhere in Central Europe, and three seemingly incongruent beings are roaming the cities, villages, and mountain towns of this small Slavic land. One is dressed as a bishop from the fourth century, complete with white robe, white beard and mustache, a shepherd’s staff, and mitre (bishop’s hat). Another is wearing horns, dark make-up, black clothes, and a red cape. He is jangling a long and heavy chain and has a black bag he keeps opening up in a threatening manner towards children. The third is an angel, wearing a white robe and wings. The “bishop” and “angel” are smiling gently. The bishop is carrying a bag of goodies to hand out to good kids, while the “devil” is laughing wickedly, jangling his chains, and looking for kids to put in his bag.
As the three visit homes and churches, children are brought to them. The bishop asks the children and parents if they had behaved well the previous year. Before the children can answer, the devil cackles loudly, menacingly jangles his chain, and says, “I know you’ve been a naughty child. You will come with me in my bag and I will take care of you forever.” At this moment, the child comes forth and sings a song, or recites a poem. Little “Jan” assures the bishop and devil that he has been a very good boy. The devil grimaces in pain, and says, “I thought for sure I would get this one.” The angel says, “I knew he was a good boy this year.” Little Jan sighs in relief, receives either a piece of fruit or candy, and the older kids and the parents laugh.
Every year, on the evening of December 5th in the Czech Republic, this play is acted out by thousands of bishops, angels, and devils and millions of families. The bishop, angel, and devil and parents are partners in teaching the children to be good in a way that reminds them of the ramifications of their behavior on Earth.
December 6th is the day set aside in the Roman Catholic Church to remember Saint Nicholas (Svaty Mikulas in Czech). Saint Nicholas was a fourth century bishop who lived on the Mediterranean Sea in the Roman Empire, in present-day Turkey. During Bishop Nicholas’ lifetime, stories abounded of his generosity and of miraculous events associated with him. One story is how a poor family that was considering to sell their daughters into slavery received golden apples by a mysterious person they believed to be Nicholas. Another story is how Nicholas appeared to distressed sailors on the ocean and calmed the seas. Bishop Nicholas was known by all to be incredibly generous to children. (In America, we call him “Santa Claus.”)
In the ninth century, Greek missionaries Cyril and Method converted the Slavic peoples to Christianity and created the various Slavic alphabets. Stories of Saint Nicholas’ generosity spread throughout the Slavic lands and throughout the Christian world. Sometime in the Medieval Ages, the tradition of the benevolent bishop and malevolent devil visiting families began. Originally, children were questioned on their knowledge of the Bible. Today, though, the kids get to escape the devil’s snares by reciting a poem or singing a song.
Nearly all Czech families participate in this tradition, which often takes place in the middle of St. Nicholas parties. Similar festivities on the eve or day of St. Nicholas take place throughout Europe and in some parts of the United States. In many places, it has become a secular holiday, including the Czech Republic. Since the Communist rule of this land from 1948-1989, most Czechs are professed atheists. However, they all still partake in the Svaty Mikulas festitivies, and it appears the children are strongly influenced by Bishop Nicholas, the angel and the devil to be good kids for at least one more year.
1. What day are the Czechs celebrating on December 6th?
2. Why are they celebrating this person?
3. During which years did the Communists control Czechoslovakia?
4. Name one effect Communist rule most likely had on Czechs?
5. What do Americans call Saint Nicholas?
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John De Gree
John De Gree writes the current events with a look at the history of each topic. Articles are written for the young person, aged 10-18, and Mr. De Gree carefully writes so that all readers can understand the event. The perspective the current events are written in is Judeo-Christian.
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