from my book, "Prague for Beginners": Svatý Mikuláš Day, Dec. 5
Today is December 5, St. Nicholas Day (Svatý Mikuláš), the day that the Czechs get Santa Klaus (St. Nicholas) out of the way. For the rest of the lead-up to Christmas, it’s all about Jesus, who gives little kids their presents as Ježíšek. He comes in the window, as better befits a baby than coming down a sooty chimney. There’s a bonus on Svatý Mikuláš Day: in addition to Santa Klaus, you also get Čert (the devil) and Anděl (an angel).
Last year on December 5, I had recently arrived in Prague and was still completely enchanted by the city. Imagine how it seemed when, on a snowy evening just as dusk was falling, I walked near a school and heard a bell tinkling. When I looked for the bell, I saw three figures on the sidewalk: a huge Svatý Mikuláš dressed in red velvet, with a tall red Bishop’s hat, hurrying along with a black devil with a big red ruffle around his face and a lovely blonde angel dressed all in white. I did a double-take; of course I could see these were people dressed up in costume, but the impression in the snow and fading light was of being transported back in time.
As quickly as I glimpsed these three, they crossed the street and were out of sight. I later figured out who they were: the main entertainers going to a school celebration of Svatý Mikuláš Day.
The children get to meet Svatý Mikuláš, who was really a Greek 4th-century bishop, known for his good works (hence proclaimed a saint after he died).
Mikuláš asks each child to account for his good and bad deeds that year, saying he or she will get a reward (candy or a small gift) or punishment (a piece of coal or a potato) accordingly. The smaller children believe that Mikuláš has been watching them all year, so they are truthful about their behavior (and their parents may have written a list of their good and bad deeds, to be read aloud), but they also offer songs or poems to make Mikuláš a bit less likely to let the devil give them coal. I imagine that most kids get sweets, but, knowing Czechs, some will get that coal. It would have scarred me for life to get coal as a kid, in public. But Czechs like to toughen up their kids, and it may not be as painful for kids to get coal here.
The devil is along to give the bad kids a smack on the bum with a broom he carries; he also threatens them that he’ll put them in his sack and take them back to hell with him. All in good fun. I’ve never figured out what the angel does, except counterbalance the devil, maybe. By the way, the American Santa Claus is from the Greek saint’s lineage, through the Dutch Sinterklaas (with a touch of the Norwegian god Odin) and the British Father Christmas.
It’s funny how the birth of a baby in Israel, the reason for Christmas, wound its way through the Middle East via Greece and Turkey, and Rome into Europe, and ended up producing a 4th-century Greek bishop who gives presents to good children and coal to bad ones. No wonder the English and American Puritans considered Christmas celebrations to be pagan and idolatrous, and forbade them wherever they could. In fact, I read that Christmas as Americans know it today, the all-out holiday of food, travel, and gifts, wasn’t really celebrated till 1870, when it was declared a federal holiday, which gave it a boost.