Why do Czechs celebrate “Mikulas”?

Photo: CTK

Wednesday night, the Eve of Mikulas or Saint Nicolas Day, is eagerly awaited by children all over the country. Each year on the night of December 5, Saint Nicolas, accompanied by an angel and the devil, visits Czech families to see if the children have behaved well during the year. He hands out a bagful of sweets and little presents to those who were good and a lump of coal or a potato to the naughty ones.

Photo: CTK
Saint Nicholas day is not limited only to the Czech Republic, but it is celebrated in various forms in most of Europe. The holiday is related to the Christian legend of the saint and to his reputation of being a patron of children and a secret gift-giver. Jirina Langhammerova from the department of ethnography in Prague’s National Museum outlines the origins of this tradition:

“Saint Nicholas was born around the year 300 in Myra in the Roman Empire in what is now Turkey. He was a bishop and he had a reputation of being a very good man. Over the years, a large part of Europe has adopted him as a patron.”

However, the popular tradition of Saint Nicholas paying visits to children and making them own up to their sins developed much later. It was first recorded in the 18th century but its origins date all the way back to the pre-Christian era. Jirina Langhammerova again:

“It is not connected with the Christian legend but rather with a pre-Christian belief that at the end of the year, which is a certain turning point, dead souls and old men foreseeing the future and symbolising penitence return among the living. There are many such figures across Europe, such as Deda Mraz in Russia or Ruprecht in Germany. In our region the legend was connected with Saint Nicolas. The bishop has a long beard and he is accompanied by two daemons of Good and Evil, or an angel and a devil.”

Photo: CTK
The fact that we celebrate Saint Nicolas Day on the preceding night is also rooted in the pre-Christian era. In the medieval European calendar the day didn’t start in the morning but on the previous night. A new day was marked by the first star that appeared on the sky.

Unlike his American relative Santa Klaus, Saint Nicolas seems to have resisted the ever-growing consumerism, though the tradition has changed a little.

“The tradition has definitely changed with regard to religion and the form is slightly different as well. Nowadays you can buy any mask you like and the children get slightly different presents. In the past, they would get apples, nuts and sweets. Nowadays, they get chocolate, toy cars and small presents. But I think the essence is still the same.”