Saint Nicholas, venerated icon of the Czech Republic’s rich history

St. Nicholas and the demon in Uherské Hradiště. Source: Uherské Hradiště-Srdce Slovácka


Czech children eagerly await the arrival of St. Nicholas (Mikuláš) on the eve of December 6. On that night the saint judges whether the kids have behaved well or badly during the year. He is helped in his task by the angel (anděl) and the demon (čert).

St. Nicholas also carries the children’s book of sins. If the children’s behaviour has been good, St. Nicholas gives them sweets, fruits or small gifts. On the other hand, if their behaviour has not been good enough, the demon gives them coal and/or potatoes. At the same time, the angel makes the kids promise that from that moment on they will be good, so it is likely that they will also receive sweets.

St. Nicholas and his companions process through the Czech streets to visit children on the night of December 5. When St. Nicholas reads the sins of the children, the demon frightens them making them believe he is going to put them in a sack to take them to hell, while the angel reassures them.

The origin of Czech tradition

The present day Czech Republic was influenced by Germany and Austria for centuries.  The Czech lands (as the Czech Republic was then known) belonged to the Holy Roman Empire from 1002 until its dissolution in 1806. At the same time, the Czech lands were under the Habsburg Monarchy from 1526 to 1918, the year in which Czechoslovakia was established as an independent state from the Austro-Hungarian Empire.

The Holy Roman Empire. Source: Paxala

Jarmila Teturová, ethnologist and director of the Centre for Folk Traditions at the Czech National Institute of Folk Culture, maintains that – according to the oldest annals in the Czech Republic – St. Nicholas began to be celebrated in the 14th century due to German influence, since in the Germany of the Holy Roman Empire he had started to be celebrated in the 10th century.

In addition to St. Nicholas, the Baby Jesus is the one who brings gifts to the children on the night of December 24th. Teturová explains that in the mid-19th century Baby Jesus (Ježíšek) began to deliver gifts to children in the wealthiest families. Later, at the end of the 19th century, this custom was extended to all ordinary people.

The director affirms that the origin of the Baby Jesus as ‘Giftbearer’ is in Germany. To understand this it is necessary to go back to the 16th century, the century of Martin Luther’s Protestant Reformation. One of the characteristics of Protestantism is the rejection of the devotion of the saints. For this reason, it is likely that St. Nicholas was replaced by the Baby Jesus as a ‘Giftbearer’.

On the other hand, it is important to point out that the Byzantine Empire was already venerating St. Nicholas in the 6th century, since Emperor Justinian the First ordered the construction of a church in honour of this saint in Constantinople in the year 550[1]

For this reason it is probable that Cyril and Methodius, 9th century Byzantine brothers, talked to their Moravian disciples about St. Nicholas although we have no documentation or other proofs of this. It is important to remember that these brothers travelled as missionaries to Great Moravia in the 9th century to preach the Christian faith[2].

Who was Saint Nicholas?

St. Nicholas is venerated in both the Western and Eastern Christian churches. In addition, in several European countries, such as Poland, the Czech Republic, Slovakia, Belgium and the Netherlands, on December 6 St. Nicholas announces the arrival of Christmas and is a very special day for children.

He was a Greek bishop of the 4th century serving in the Greek city of Myra (nowadays Turkish territory) hence he is known in the East as St. Nicholas of Myra. Simultaneously in the West he is known as St. Nicholas of Bari, since his remains were transferred to that Italian city when the Muslims began to conquer the day Turkey.

There is not much reliable information about St. Nicholas. His biography was written by Methodius. It is said that he inherited a large fortune when his parents died and that he distributed it amongst the poor. In addition, he travelled to Palestine and Egypt to visit the Holy Land[3].

There are several legends about St. Nicholas. One of them tells that St. Nicholas had a very poor neighbour. His neighbour had three daughters and thought of prostituting them to get money. When St. Nicholas found out, he threw a bag of gold coins down his neighbour’s chimney during the night. In this way, the three girls’ reputations were saved. Another legend tells that he resurrected three children murdered in a barrel of salt to feed an innkeeper’s customers[4].

In addition to being the patron saint of children because of these legends, he is also the patron saint of sailors since it is said that a fleet was not sunk during a severe storm because it was blessed by him[5].

From Saint Nicholas to Santa Claus

In the 17th century the Dutch founded the city of New Amsterdam, later renamed New York, in the present day United States. The Dutch brought their customs and traditions with them to their American colony.  One of these customs was that of Sinterklaas (St. Nicholas). This is believed to be how St. Nicholas changed his name to Santa Claus[6].

In addition, Santa Claus began to be marketed in 1931 when Coca Cola used the image in an advertising campaign. This company found inspiration in Saint Nicholas to create a kind and friendly character[7]. Coca Cola dressed Santa Claus in red. In this way people associate Santa Claus with Coca Cola.

In spite of the fact that in many countries Santa Claus has taken over the role of St. Nicholas, in the Czech Republic this saint is still as important now as he was in the past. According to Teturová, the younger generations still believe in the Baby Jesus and St. Nicholas. Therefore, Czech culture is not threatened by Santa Claus.

Typical Czech Christmas dinner: fish soup, fried carp, potato salad and vánočka, a traditional Czech bread. Skanzen Muzeum. Photo: Celia Pérez

Moreover, the expert explains that in communist Czechoslovakia St. Nicholas Day was not supported by the government because they aimed to eliminate religious symbols and expressions. However, Teturová maintains that the tradition was still alive in rural areas.

The ethnologist also recounts that during Russia’s cultural incursion into Czechoslovakia, Grandfather Frost (дед мороз Ded Moroz written and read in Russian), the person in charge of delivering gifts to children on New Year’s Eve, was not able to destroy the symbol of the Baby Jesus.

St. Nicholas and the traditions surrounding him confirm the belief that the Czech Republic has a long and rich history and culture. A tradition that is still alive in the heart of Europe, which makes the Czech Republic a very special place to be during Christmas.

Esta obra está bajo una Licencia Creative Commons Atribución-NoComercial-SinDerivadas 4.0 Internacional.

[1]  San Nicolás de Mira Santos y Teología del Corazón 12/01/2014

[2]  Great Moravia, a valuable legacy from the Middle Ages Crónicas del corazón de Europa 09/11/2019

[3] San Nicolás de Bari- el verdadero Santa Claus Primeros cristianos 05/12/2019

[4] San Nicolás de Mira Santos y Teología del Corazón 12/01/2014

[5] San Nicolás de Mira Santos y Teología del Corazón 12/01/2014

[6] ¿De dónde viene la Navidad? BBC Mundo 20/12/2014

[7] La verdadera historia detrás de Papa Noel Coca Cola España 23/12/2014

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