Guest Author - Barbara Swiech
For children in most of the countries Santa Claus brings thoughts of presents. When one looks for translation of Santa Claus into Polish, the only one that will be found is ‘Swiety Mikolaj’. However, in Polish tradition Swiety Mikolaj is not associated with Santa Claus (living in Lapland and having sleighs with reindeers) but a Catholic saint – Nicholas.
Saint Nicholas was born in Myra (today’s Turkey) around 270 year. He is very often called Nicholas the Wonderworker. Although he was a member of Orthodox church, and is one of the most popular saints, he was also acclaimed to be a saint by Catholic church. One of his legends says about three young ladies that got married only thanks to the dowry that Saint Nicholas of Myra secretly left for them. This is where the tradition of giving small gifts derives from. The Poles celebrate St Nicholas’ Day on 6th of December. The presents are hidden under the pillows (as the Christmas tree is still not present in Polish houses then). Saint Nicholas comes also for a visit to people’s homes. He is depicted with bishop’s hat and crossier. Very often, during his visit, he is assisted by angel and devil. Of course everybody must get a present, however, for the naughty ones there is always a special gift – birch.
While the tradition of Santa Claus came to Poland, and there was no equivalent of that individual in country’s tradition, the name of Santa was translated also as Swiety Mikolaj. Although his clothing differs a little bit – as there are no bishop’s attributes – it is still alike (as red color is dominant). The two man – Saint Nicholas and Santa Claus – melted into one. As the Lapland’s Santa distributes his gifts during Christmas (putting them under Christmas tree) and Nicholas just before it, some of the children get their presents twice in December.
I do not know whether future generations of young Poles will even remember that Santa Claus (who brings presents on Christmas Day) and Saint Nicholas (who hides his presents on 6th December each year) are two different people. They may decide to follow one of the two traditions of giving the presents. However, still looking at the pictures of their parents from nursery they might wonder why Santa instead of fat belly and sleighs has a strange hat and cane. Let’s hope that tradition of celebrating the day of Nicholas from Myra will not vanish from Polish families.