The origins of St. Nicholas Day trace back to the life of St. Nicholas himself. Born to wealthy parents in Patara, in present-day Turkey, he was known for his deep religious devotion from an early age. Following the death of his parents, he used his entire inheritance to assist the needy, the sick and the suffering. His most famous act of kindness was secretly delivering bags of gold to the house of a poor man who could not afford a proper dowry for his daughters. After his death, St. Nicholas was canonized, and stories of his compassion spread across continents. By the Middle Ages, St. Nicholas was widely celebrated in Europe and his feast day became a children's holiday associated with gift-giving.
St. Nicholas Day is celebrated in various ways worldwide. In the Netherlands and Belgium, children leave shoes out on the night of December 5th, hoping to find them filled with sweets and small gifts the next morning. In France, St. Nicholas parades are a common sight, while in Germany and Austria, St. Nicholas visits homes and schools to reward well-behaved children.
In Poland, St. Nicholas Day ("Mikołajki") is eagerly anticipated by children across the country. On the night of December 5th, children shine their shoes and leave them by the window, hoping that St. Nicholas will fill them with gifts. In some regions, St. Nicholas arrives in a horse-drawn sleigh, dressed as a bishop, to visit children and distribute presents. This day also marks the unofficial start of the Christmas season in Poland.
The Christmas season in Poland is truly special, enveloped in a magical atmosphere that captivates locals and visitors alike. On Christmas Eve, or "Wigilia," families gather for a traditional meal that includes twelve dishes, symbolizing the twelve apostles. Before the meal, they share "opłatek" (Christmas wafer) and express their wishes for each other.
Decorating Christmas trees, singing carols, and attending the midnight mass are also integral parts of Polish celebration. One unique tradition is leaving an empty seat at the Christmas Eve table for an unexpected guest, emphasizing the Polish values of hospitality and kindness.