Just noticed that today is December 6, the feast day of St. Nicholas, called nigulapäev (Nicholas Day) in Estonian. Saint-days are not capitalized by Estonians.
The Estonian name-day calendar lists today’s names as Nigul, Nigulas, Niilas and Niilo. Also Nils, Klaus, Laas and Laus. All derive from the name of Nikolaos of Myra, the 4th Century saint who became known as Sinterklaas by the Dutch, and eventually developed into our American Santa Claus, who dwells in every shopping mall from Maine to Hawaii. He is currently the patron saint of Mastercard.
My first husband’s father, whose name was Nicola, the Italian version of Nicholas, didn’t celebrate his own birthday. Instead, like many native Italians, he celebrated on his name-day, St. Nicholas Day.
The original Nikolaos, who was the Greek bishop of Myra in what is now Turkey, was called the Wonderworker for his many miracles. He had a reputation for secretly giving gifts such as coins, in shoes that people left out for him. He is revered by both Orthodox and Catholic Christians.
The saint’s relics, including his bones, eventually wound up in Bari, Italy. Several years ago these bones were studied by a forensic lab which found that the man was about five feet tall and had a broken nose.
In the Netherlands, St. Nicholas Eve, Dec. 5, is when children place their shoes in front of the chimney in hopes that Sinterklaas will leave gifts in them. Children are given presents on the eve, and small gifts are found in the shoes the following morning. This day is still more important than Christmas in the Netherlands, and is also celebrated by German, Polish, Belgian and Dutch immigrant communities in the United States.
The shoe custom exists in much of Central Europe. Today’s Christmas stockings are an echo of this tradition.
In Estonia, nigulapäev is considered the beginning of winter, because under the old Julian calendar it occurred on December 19, close to the winter solstice. Legend says that on this day, the eagle falls from the tree because its claws lose their grip due to ice.
It is mainly celebrated by Estonia’s small Orthodox community as a religious festival.
In the olden days, December 6 supposedly shared similarities with the folk customs of mardipäev (St. Martin’s Day, November 10.) I don’t know whether this included the mardipäev tradition of dressing as beggars and going door to door for treats. Today, young Estonians still go begging on Nov. 10 and receive coins and treats such as Snickers bars.