Today is St. Nicholas Day.
If you’re from a mainly Protestant nation (think Scandinavia) or from a predominantly Anglophone country (the UK, US, Canada, Australia, New Zealand, and to an extent South Africa), your average response might be: what?
In the Czech Republic, however, one cannot escape Mikuláš.
Just who exactly is Mikuláš? For starters, Svatý Mikuláš z Myry (in Czech) is Saint Nicholas of Myra. That’s right. It’s the same inspiration for jolly ol’ St. Nick that most American and Canadian kids know as Santa Claus, or Father Christmas for British children. Whereas the Anglo-Saxon St. Nick has evolved into a humorous fat man arriving in the wee hours of Christmas morning, Mikuláš dresses not unlike an elderly Roman Catholic bishop, tall, thin, and stern. Unlike our Santa Claus, who arrives on December 25, Mikuláš arrives on the evening of December 5. For Czechs, Baby Jesus (Ježíšek) does all the work that our obese Santa would do, though on December 24, giving St. Nick other things to do in the meantime.
This is the tradition for most Central European nations with Catholic histories, and the Czech Republic–even with its strong atheist mindset–is no exception. Unlike our Santa Claus, who pays visits to shopping malls or public places before Christmas, with overly-excited or terrified children lining up to sit on his lap to nervously tell him all they want under the Christmas tree, Mikuláš tours Czech neighborhoods how a Catholic priest from the Middle Ages would, checking on the souls of his parishioners. As support, Mikuláš is usually joined by a placid-faced female angel (anděl) and a black-faced, poofy-haired devil (čert). Around neighborhoods the trio go, knocking on doors of apartments and houses to speak with children.
While Santa Claus might briefly ask if the child has been good or not during an encounter at the mall, a meeting with the Mikuláš trio can feel like a mini-interrogation for small Czech children. Upon encountering them on a street or after being invited into a home, the angel will ask children if they’ve been good this year; the devil will turn to ask if they’ve been bad, perhaps with some outlandish threats of being dragged to hell if they weren’t. Always, children will respond that they’ve been good, may recite a small song to the trio, followed by Mikuláš and company giving away gifts or sweets. If they’ve been bad, children may be given a potato or a lump of coal for their naughtiness, or even a bit of chastising from Mikuláš.
For those of us originating from the Anglo-Saxon world (and North America in particular), having the devil show up at your door during the most exciting month of the year for a child might be a little hard to swallow. The thought of Santa Claus or any other holiday figure threatening their kids with hellish eternal damnation would likely make many American and Canadian parents cringe. Instead, our tradition seems to opt for the more cheery yet passive-aggressive St. Nick who’s omnipresent, no matter where you are or what you’re doing:
He’s making a list
And checking it twice
Gonna find out who’s naughty and nice
Santa Claus is coming to town
He sees you when you’re sleeping
He knows when you’re awake
He knows if you’ve been bad or good
So be good for goodness sake!
However, as my Czech friends have told me, having an angel as part of the Mikuláš trio makes a good balance, smoothing what could be a potentially terrifying situation into something strangely surreal, becoming more comforting and nostalgic as children advance into adulthood.
This is what it’s like to be a kid in the Czech Republic. As a child, you are either in awe or terror of meeting Mikuláš and his pals during your young years, and as the great David Sedaris once wrote about the same day in The Netherlands, you turn around and repeat it as an adult. The cycle continues and the tradition survives for another generation.
If one thing’s for certain, Czech parents and children alike can console themselves that they don’t live in Austria, where St. Nicholas is accompanied not by any angel or a cartoonish devil, but instead by the demonic Krampus.
And yes. Krampus is downright frightening.