St. Nicholas is Coming to Town

  • St. Nicholas is Coming to Town
Issue 129, December 2019.
St. Nicholas is Coming to Town
It’s that time of the year again – when children eagerly think of all the gifts and goodies they could imagine themselves playing with next year. And while Ukraine joins in the tradition of spoiling the little ones at this time of year, the country continues to define which holiday traditions should persevere. As with other holidays, Ukraine is struggling to define its own post-Soviet way at Christmas – and that’s where St. Nicholas comes in. Popular worldwide – why even the season’s most famous poem is titled ‘A Visit From St. Nicholas’ – the modern incarnation in Ukraine has replaced Did Moroz, the Soviet-era Santa Clause-esque character still popular in modern Russia, as the season’s most cherished tradition. So, what’s this St. Nicholas all about in Ukraine?
Becoming Svyatty Mykolai
Like other traditions, St. Nicholas (or Svyatty Mykolai in Ukrainian) derives from a popular 3rd Century bishop. He is known for secretly giving gifts to children, the sick, and the poor. Over time, his deeds became legendary – he would save women from prostitution by paying their dowries, save condemned men from the tip of the executioner’s sword, and guide lost sailors through inclement weather. Widely popular in Europe throughout the Middle Ages, where Christian nations would mark the anniversary of his death with a feast (Dec. 6), he gathered a special following in the Netherlands, where children would find coins in their shoes on St. Nicholas Day. The Dutch brought their St. Nicholas (or Siinterklaas in Dutch) traditions with them as they immigrated to the United States. These traditions eventually morphed into modern day Santa Claus, who is often nicknamed St. Nicholas.
Replacing Did Moroz
Santa Claus began as a moralist-type figure – he knows if you’ve been bad or good (so be good for goodness sake!) – but the tradition has become, over time, more secularist and materialistic. While St. Nicholas has long been venerated in Ukraine, the Soviets tried to destroy the influence of religion and actively attempted to replace its traditions. They banned Christmas and introduced Father Frost (or Did Moroz in Ukrainian). Originally the pagan Slavic wizard of winter, the character was revived as part of New Year’s celebrations – which the Soviets still allowed. Eventually adopting a Snow Maiden (or Snegoruchka in Russian) granddaughter, the modern, secular characters became immensely popular in the Soviet Union, and remain that way in Russia and Belarus today. Religion has become a key battle in forging the modern Ukrainian identity, which could explain why the country continues to lean towards replacing secular and popular-in-Russia Did Moroz with the more religious and traditional Svyatty Mykolai.   
St. Nicholas Goes Digital! Too busy to be bothered to send mail like it was the Middle Ages? Send St. Nicholas an email at [email protected] instead!
Celebrating Saint Nicholas Day
So, just how do Ukrainians go about celebrating Saint Nicholas Day (Dec. 19)? Much like in the West, Ukrainian children write letters to Saint Nicholas outlining what they would like to receive should they be judged to have been good throughout the year. They either leave these on their windowsills for his helpers to pick up or they mail them to his Manor in Hutsulshchina National Park (St. Nicholas Manor, Pistyn, Kosiv district, Ivano-Frankivsk region, 78633). Schools perform Saint Nicholas plays and sing songs dedicated to the saint. Kids will often bake special ‘Mykolaychky’ cookies and leave them under their pillows for when he pays them a visit. When he comes, it is said he brings a couple of angels and devils that guide him in his choice of leaving a gift under your pillow or, if you’ve been bad, a stick to beat you with!  As gift-giving is an essential part of the holiday, Ukrainians take extra care to make sure that Saint Nicholas visits all children – especially if they don’t have parents. Many churches collect gifts that are distributed on 19 December to orphanages and children of soldiers killed in ATO. In Lviv, you can visit St. Nicholas Church near High Castle – one of the city’s oldest – or the 18th Century Boyko St. Nicholas’ Church at Shevchenkivskyi Hai. Of course, for a proper holiday experience, head out to St. Nicholas’ Manor in the Ivano-Frankivsk region and meet St. Nicholas for yourself!
Be St. Nicholas This Year! Churches collect letters to St. Nicholas from orphanages before St. Nicholas Day. Stop in ahead of time and pick up the gift a child wants – you’ll make their St. Nicholas Day this year one to remember!
-- Lee Reaney