Mikulas – The Real Czech Father Christmas
The Feast of ST Nicholas is celebrated throughout Central and Eastern Europe on December 5th. It is a night when little children have to sing to Mikulas to get a treat and if they’ve been bad they may also get a piece of coal as well. And lets not forget the scary Cert (pronounced “Chert”) reducing small children to tears (and some mothers as well). Remember those of you from the US and UK who celebrate Christmas on the 25th of December, the Mikulas celebration is three weeks earlier. If you’ll be here in December then check my Prague Christmas Markets Walking Tour (food and drink included). Also check the Prague Markets and Hot Street Food post for what to expect and tips. Take a look at the Pay by Weight post to understand how that works here. There’s my Six Hot Alcoholic Drinks post to keep you warm and there’s also my Why we don’t eat Zebra post.
The image of Mikulas as the saint who brings gifts to good children and tests them from prayer-books and the Bible in the early evening of his holiday is typical for catholic countries. Today, children and their parents are mostly asked whether the children have been good all year – not being naughty and listening to their parents, etc. – and rewarded with Mikulas’ gifts – fruit, games, chocolate and a wide variety of other treats according to the answers.
Mikulas doesn’t visit children alone. He’s accompanied by a devil with horns and a long, red tongue, whose animal-like appearance is furthered by a shaggy black fur coat and other essential devilish accessories: a tail, a chain and a staff, with which he punishes naughty children. To balance out the devil is an angel, who protects the children from him. The angel appears to children in a white gown with paper wings and a star on his forehead.
Extensive legends about the life and deeds of St. Nicholas have been pased down in a wide variety of forms. According to them, Nicholas was born around the year 250 or 260 A.D. in the town of Patara in southwest of Asia Minor, to a family of wealthy and devout Christians. After the death of his parents, he gave everything away to the poor. The following legend of his generosity became famous:
In Patara there lived a certain poor man who had three daughters, but had run up such debts that there was only one thing left to him to do: to sell his daughters to a brothel. When Nicholas learned of this, he went and threw money through the open window of their bedroom on three nights for them. Their father was not only able to pay off his debts, but had enough left for dowries for all three. With the gratitude of his home town, Nicholas then chose to leave for the Holy Land.
Mikulas the Legend
On his way back from Palestine, Nicholas was named a bishop in the town of Myra. Previously, before Nicholas arrived, an angel had appeared in Myra and declared that the first man who entered the church on the morning of the second day would be named to the bishopric. At first, Nicholas suffered for his Christian beliefs, because Christians were being persecuted by the ruling of Emperor Diocletsian. Nicholas was imprisoned and spent a period in exile on pain of death. Not until Emperor Constantine in 313 was the practice of Christianity permitted.
Nicholas then returned home, where he became famous as a bishop for his zealous defense and advancing of Christianity. His other holy deeds include his assistance to sailors (in Czech he is patron saint of sailors) and fishermen who fell into the sea in distress, his resurrection of three wrongfully condemned soldiers and murdered men. Nicholas also ensured the people had enough food in times of famine when he miraculously multiplied the grain so they had enough bread, and he defended widows, children and all those persecuted and mistreated.
In the Czech Republic, 124 churches have been consecrated to SV. Mikulas (Saint Nicholas), among the most famous and most significant being the St. Nicholas Church in the Mala Strana in Prague, which is one of the most priceless of all Czech Baroque buildings.