Advent is here. The feast of St. Nicholas on December 6 comes early in Advent, so it’s one of my first areas of concentration in preparing for the Advent season.
Activity Sources: St. Nicholas is so popular all over the world. There is just no way I could possibly touch on all the possibilities of celebrations and traditions related to this day. But I don’t really need to, because if you haven’t heard of St. Nicholas Center by now, you need to take some time to view this site. It is bursting with so much information St. Nicholas — traditions from history and around the world, stories, music, recipes, crafts, coloring pages, teaching tools, book reviews, links and even a little shop with St. Nicholas materials. If that’s not enough, or if you want ideas in smaller chunks, see:
Decorating for St. Nicholas: Since St. Nicholas’ Day comes so early in Advent, it’s the first feast day in planning that I “tackle”. This will be one of the biggest feast days we celebrate during this season. After displaying our Advent wreath and calendar and a few touches of purple, depictions of St. Nicholas are the first decorations to appear to herald the coming of Christmas. Over the years I’ve collected a few statues and ornaments, always keeping my eyes open for depictions of the Bishop saint. My collection isn’t huge, but each one was a “find” — including the tall skinny statue found at the Dollar Store! I am sorely tempted by some of these handcrafted statues.
Images of St. Nicholas: Showing different depictions of this saint helps discussions about his life and legends and traditions of this day. St. Nicholas’ relics are held in Bari, Italy, including his skull. A few years ago BBC and Discovery had a documentary on trying to compile from the skull remains what his real image might be. See Revealed: the real Santa, a saint with a broken nose and the pictures of the Real St. Nicholas, front view and profile. And viewing the various icons is another level of discussions.
Coloring Pages: One very basic but tried and true activity with depictions of St. Nicholas is coloring pictures, and there are many from which to choose.
The Daughters of St. Paul had a wonderful activity book and video from 1993, How St. Nicholas Became Santa Claus which has wonderful pictures to color, plus stories and other activities, but you can only buy these used. CCC of America’s “The Boy Who Became Santa is an excellent video that doesn’t destroy the idea of Santa but reverence St. Nicholas as a saint.
St. Nicholas Family Cookie Tradition:
I’m the oldest of seven children, and since I was very young my family has made speculaas (Dutch spice) cookies since I was very young. Together we baked the cookies before the feast, and then were left in our shoes on the eve of St. Nicholas. This tradition was the highlight of our Advent. As my siblings and I have grown and have our own families, we have all incorporated this tradition in our families. Any part of my family that lives nearby try to come together and have a cookie cutting and baking party.
The recipe we use for speculaas or speculatius (or speculoos) cookies is from Cooking for Christ version. The same recipe is repeated in in Family Advent Customs by Helen Mcloughlin and Around the Year with the Trapp Family. Most of the time we use all butter, instead of a mixture of butter and lard, but if we use lard, it is a high quality, preferably leaf lard.
Speculatius or Speculaas Cookies
1 cup unsalted butter
1 cup lard (or 1 cup butter, 2 cups total)
2 cups brown sugar
1/2 cup sour cream
4 1/2 cups flour
1/2 teaspoon baking soda
4 teaspoons ground cinnamon
1/2 teaspoon ground nutmeg
1/2 teaspoon ground cloves
1/2 cup chopped nuts (pecans or walnuts)
Sift together the dry ingredients: flour, baking soda, cinnamon, nutmeg and cloves in one bowl and set aside. In a larger bowl (stand mixer works best), cream butter and sugar. Add small amounts of sour cream, alternating with dry ingredients until all ingredients are added and mixed well. Stir in nuts. Separate dough in smaller amounts and knead dough into rolls. Wrap rolls in wax paper and chill overnight. Roll dough very thin and cut into shapes. Bake at 375º for 10-15 minutes. These are delicious alone, but also can be decorated with colored icings and candied fruits.
We have made the recipe in the past without nuts and it is still tasty. One nice thing about this recipe is that there are no eggs, so it’s safe to snack on the dough, and it’s easier for me to try and substitute for my son’s allergy needs.
The dough must chill overnight, so make sure the dough is mixed before December 5. Growing up we didn’t have a large stand mixer, and since we doubled or tripled the recipe, we would make the dough in a large bowl by hand. The children loved to feel the different textures of the ingredients: the gritty sugar creamed with butter, the cold, wet sour cream, the soft flour mixture and the finished cookie dough. After mixing the dough, divide it into smaller balls, enough to roll out and cut for a few cookie sheets. We use wax or parchment paper to roll them up, and then place the rolls in zip top bags in the refrigerator (so it won’t pick up any odors or flavors) at least overnight. If you like spice or gingerbread, this is a delicious cookie, and keeps throughout Advent (and a welcome gift), so we always make plenty to share. If the dough gets to warm to roll, return to refrigerator to harden. You can also roll into small balls and flatten cookies if the cookie cutting enthusiasm and helpers fizzle.
On December 5th or earlier we gather together for the Nicholas Cookie making party. Every family brings their own dough, cookie cutters, baking sheets, rolling pins and aprons. We cut out cookies and bake them, and have a simple dinner. We serve simple foods, like baked ham, or chili, have some appetizers (veggies, deviled eggs). No dessert is necessary since we sneak a bite or two of the cookies. Apple cider, mulled or not, bishopswyn (mulled wine) are perfect accompaniments. I also think the new wine Beaujolais Nouveau is nice accompaniment. While we eat, cut and bake we talk about St. Nick and the traditions, and everyone has fun enjoying the family gathering.
Cookie Cutters: It hasn’t been until lately that I’ve gotten actual cutters for St. Nicholas, some from St. Nicholas Center and other from House on the Hill. We mainly use Christmas nativity cookie cutters from Cookie Craft…and each family member has gotten their own set when they have left home and married. We pretend the wiseman is the Bishop Nicholas, and sometimes we would try to cut out our own designs. We never decorated or iced the cookies. They are delicious as they are.
I actually used this cookie recipe for my wedding favors using special wedding themed molds from House on the Hill, put a cookie in cellophane bag with the recipe and explanation of St. Nicholas and the tradition in our family. All the guests enjoyed it, and I’m still hearing comments years later from families who started the tradition in their own family. For these molds, it takes a bit to work the dough and not let it stick. There are instructions on this page, but House on the Hill has another recipe and suggestions on how to make the imprint the best. We used cooking spray to coat the molds. I suggest using smaller molds, unless you plan on giving one cookie to a person, because some of the molds make a BIG cookie!
There’s a new book on Baking with Cookie Molds by Anne L. Watson, who is the wife of Aaron Shepard, the author of The Baker’s Dozen: A Saint Nicholas Tale. There is currently a 15th Anniversary Edition that includes a Cookie Recipe and Pattern for St. Nicholas Christmas Cookies. The illustrations of the cookies in Shepard’s book are my favorite for speculaas cookies!
Gold Foil Chocolate Coins: Because of my son’s food allergies, we’ve been looking for various treats that are fail-proof to use for St. Nicholas. Gold foil-covered chocolate coins are a perfect stocking or shoe-filler because they are a reminder of the gold coins St. Nicholas gave to help a poor father provide a dowry for his three daughters. The milk chocolate coins are widely available because of the Jewish tradition of Hanukkah Gelt.
Emmanuel Books now has St. Nicholas Chocolate Coins. These contain milk and shared equipment with nuts.
Paidea Classics have a dark chocolate coin that is dairy free imprinted with an image of St. Nicholas. I have purchased these for several years.
Vermont Nut Free Chocolate also sells dairy and nut free chocolate coins. If you’re worried about nuts in the regular milk chocolate, they have that version, also.
To convert your coins to St. Nicholas coins, Jessica at A Shower of Roses shared some lovely images to use. St. Nicholas Center seems to have copied Jessica and have their version of the St. Nicholas images.
Music: We play Advent or Christmas music in the background. Usually this is the first day of we start playing Christmas carols. The type of music ranges from the sublime Legends of St. Nicholas by Anonymous 4 to White Christmas by Bing Crosby, especially “Jingle Bells” with the Andrews Sisters and a now hard-to-find album called Hark Ye Shepherds by the Alfred Deller Consort, which has the most terrific version of “People Look East” (listen to a sample here).
This year I might add some sing-along hymns, as suggested on 4Real Forums. Here is replacement text for “Jolly Old St. Nicholas” (piano version). From the Eastern tradition come these simple tunes, St. Nicholas and Scroll Down to “Hymn to St. Nicholas”.
I’ve had all sorts of people get a glimmer of this family tradition, such as young singles, or while I was away at college, and it opens the door to Catholic liturgical living, closer lives with the saints and family traditions.
Puppets: The newest part of our party is a puppet show. A few years ago I requested this adorable St. Nicholas hand puppet for Christmas. It’s fabulous, or you can make a felt hand puppet. We use the puppet to tell about St. Nicholas. Puppets are a great way to teach and tell stories. Even if the little child sees the puppeteer, the child tunes the person out and zooms in on the puppet. If you can’t have a real St. Nick come to the house, this is an inexpensive substitute. We have no special puppet theater…just pull out a sofa, cover with a sheet and kneel behind it. Some other ideas for the puppet show:
I was thinking of perhaps making a Companion of St. Nicholas, like Krampus or Piet, to have more conversation. In many countries St. Nicholas has a companion, and that is the “enforcer” with straw, sticks, whips or coal for the naughty children. He is not always mean, but can help present the story of St. Nicholas.
At the end of the party, bags are made of the baked cookies and sent home. One year I found St. Nicholas statues at the Dollar store, so each guest received that as a favor. Other times we used holy cards of St. Nicholas. Once home, each family makes small bags of the cookie and “St. Nick” comes and leaves them in each person’s shoes. Sometimes St. Nicholas leaves additional candy and holycards but the cookies are always a must. This year we will have St. Nicholas chocolate coins (our choice is dark chocolate to avoid the dairy).
May St. Nicholas bless you and help you on your spiritual journey from Advent to Christmas.