St. Mikulas Czech Tradition
Written by Tomas Baloun
Have you ever heard about St. Mikulas? If not, you should at least know the name Nicholas. The story surrounding St. Mikulas is actually quite intriguing and inspirational.
First of all, the name Mikulas is the Czech equivalent of the Greek name Nikolaos, meaning “the victory of people” or “winner among the people,” which may provide some foreshadowing of the story. Mikulas was very a generous and helpful bishop who lived in the 4th century in Greece. During his lifetime, he developed a reputation for being helpful to those in need and putting coins in their shoes. For a great number of miracles, which occurred during his time, he was also called “Nicholas the Thaumaturge.”
Thaumaturge is someone who uses magic for nonreligious purposes to actually change things in the physical world. He is one of the most celebrated saints in all Christianity, and for good reason.
What does the tradition look like?
On the evening of December 5th, Mikulas knocks on the doors of Czech households with the devil and an angel alongside him, handing out treats to good children. The devil’s work, on the other hand, is to spook and symbolically punish those children who were not kind and good. St. Mikulas is portrayed as a man with a long, white beard dressed in a red bishop’s garment. Children mostly receive chocolates or snacks, but also oranges or potatoes. “Bad children” may receive coal. Children usually have to sing a song or a rhyme in order to get a candy.
But, why do we hand out candies?
The tradition has its roots in the 10th century. It started during boy bishop games, which took place in monastery schools. In the games, one boy would carry a crutch with which he took over the monastery for one day as St. Mikulas and was master of the school.
In the 13th century, this holiday became St. Mikula’s day, and a new game was invented in which a groom handed out treats to children. One of the grooms, named Ruprecht, was supposed to reward but also scare children, which, over the course of time, changed to the devil and angel joining Mikulas on his gift-giving errand. Since then, this trio wanders from one door to another across the whole Czech Republic.
Why is it so popular?
Nowadays, this tradition is loved by almost every child in the Czech Republic, even those who were not so good and kind for the whole year. While it is not a nationwide public holiday in the Czech Republic, but merely a religious observance, it is still a great occasion on which families gather to have a nice evening. The role of Mikulas is often taken up by a friend of the family or a grandad, and not the father, so that children are surprised.
What is the conclusion?
Although there are not actually thousands of real St. Nicholases walking around in the town on December 5th, this beloved tradition surely has its place on the yearly calendar of all children in the Czech Republic.
If you happen to visit the Czech Republic during the first few days of December, don’t be surprised by the hundreds of men dressed in the red and white garments with one angel and one devil walking alongside of them. The people are all volunteers and many women are the two. Useable actors are friends, relatives or neighbors of the families who have small children at home.