Christmas day may be what usually jumps to mind when thinking of a Christian holiday during Advent, however some areas of France celebrate another festival earlier in the month of December.
La fête de la Saint Nicolas (Saint Nicholas Day) is inspired by Bishop Nicolas of Myra who was born in the third century in what is present-day Turkey.
The bishop was known for protecting children, widows, and vulnerable people, and for being a kind and generous man.
Allegedly, miracles started to occur soon after his death on December 6 in the year 343, which were attributed to the bishop’s spirit, and he was subsequently made a saint.
Saint Nicholas is said to be the saint who inspired the legend of Santa Claus – due to his reputation as the bringer of gifts, protector of the vulnerable and his wearing of long robes – and he is remembered on December 6 in Western Christian countries.
In France, Saint Nicholas is also remembered as a protector of children thanks to an old tale in which he saves three boys from a wicked butcher and returns them to their families.
This story is often retold on December 6 and is also depicted in the popular French children’s song, la légende de Saint Nicolas (The legend of Saint Nicholas), sung by Henri Dès, a well known French singer for children.
Which areas of France celebrate Saint Nicholas day?
Although Saint Nicholas is a traditional Christmas figure across all of France, it is mainly Eastern France that celebrates Saint Nicolas day - particularly Alsace, Lorraine, Champagne and Franche-Comté.
This is said to date back to the Battle of Nancy in 1477 when René II, the Duke of Lorraine was fighting against Charles the Bold in order to keep control of the area and placed his army under the protection of Saint Nicholas. On winning the battle René made Nicholas the patron saint of Lorraine.
How does France celebrate Saint Nicholas day?
Someone dressed as Saint Nicholas visits children at schools, nurseries or even door-to-door with chocolates, sweets and small gifts.
Children often place their shoes on their doorstep for Saint Nicholas to fill with treats, as well as something for him to drink and a carrot for his donkey.
Gingerbread is baked by families and bakeries in some areas prepare brioche-style treats called mannele, which are made in a bishop shape and flavoured with raisins or chocolate chips.
In Metz, Nancy, Épinal, Saint-Dié, Bar-le-Duc and Verdun, the Saint Nicholas parade has become a tradition and usually takes place on the first Saturday or Sunday of December.
Meanwhile, some areas put on spectacles such as firework displays during the first weekend of December to mark the occasion.
What is the legend of Saint Nicholas?
According to the story, three boys got lost on their way home.
They spotted a house with the lights on, knocking on the door and asked for refuge for the night.
The man who answered was a butcher called Pierre Lenoir, who killed the children and chopped them up, storing their bodies in a bucket of salt with the plan of selling their meat.
Later Saint Nicholas was walking with his donkey. He stopped and knocked on the butcher’s door, who then invited him in for dinner out of fear of refusing a bishop.
Saint Nicholas asked for some salt and the butcher realised he had been discovered, admitting everything.
The saint then brought the children back to life and took them home to their families.
The evil butcher was chained to the Saint’s donkey as punishment and kept close to Nicholas at all times – thus becoming Père Fouettard (Father Whipper), otherwise known as ‘bad Santa’, who, according to the tale, whipped children who misbehaved, and distributed lumps of coal instead of presents.
The inspiration for stockings
In France, Saint Nicolas is also said to have helped a poor father with three unmarried girls by giving him a bag of gold for each of their dowries.
The story goes that he approached the house at night and tossed a first bag through an open window, landing in a stocking hanging on the fireplace to dry.
He returned twice to give the father two more bags so that all three daughters could be married, although on the third occasion he was caught by the girls’ father, who had been watching out of the window to find out who had been so kind to him.
Saint Nicholas begged the father not to reveal his identity and told him to thank God alone for providing the gifts of gold in answer to his prayers.