Why does Mikuláš visit on December 5th?

Don’t be surprised if you see groups of people dressed as angels, devils, and a man with a long white beard and tall red hat wandering around your neighbourhood on 5th December – it is the eve of Saint Nicholas Day, simply known as Mikuláš in Czech. Like many European countries, Czechs celebrate Saint Nicholas Day as a separate holiday from Christmas, with its own traditions.

In the Czech Republic, Mikuláš (Saint Nicholas) typically has a long white beard and dons a bishop’s garb, usually in white and red, and carries a staff. He is accompanied by a devil, who is traditionally black and hairy with either red or black horns, and an angel, who usually wears white wings and a halo. The trio go round visiting homes where children reside. The devil is there to gently (or sometimes severely) scare children into behaving, with threats of being carried off in the devil’s sack to hell as punishment for badly-behaved children. Meanwhile, the angel and Mikuláš are responsible for giving out gifts. Usually children have to sing a song or recite a poem in order to receive their gifts. The gifts are typically not big or expensive, but rather small sweet treats or trinkets for good luck.

This year the traditional celebrations will be somewhat curtailed due to the COVID-19 pandemic, with Health Minister Adam Vojtěch advising against people inviting Mikuláš, the angel and the devil into their homes, or if they must then to wear respirators. “I understand that it’s a tradition, but it represents a risk,” he said at a press conference on Friday. He added that last year had shown that the festive season would bring in its wake a fresh wave of infections.

Photo: Loreta Vašková,  Radio Prague International

While in some countries, notably the Netherlands, some of the traditions surrounding Saint Nicholas Day have received international scrutiny and controversy due to Saint Nicholas’ helper, Zwarte Piet (‘Black Pete’) accused of being a racist caricature, the Czech devil, who also usually wears black makeup, has so far avoided similar controversy, perhaps due to being less well-known internationally, the Czech Republic having fewer ethnic minorities and no colonial history of slavery, or simply because the Czech devil doesn’t exhibit the other trappings of blackface such as gold earrings and large red lips, and looks much more like a hairy monster with horns rather than the minstrel-esque Zwarte Piet, although the two characters both share the tradition of carrying sacks which naughty children are supposed to be carried away in.

But why do Mikuláš and his companions make their rounds on the evening of 5th December, when St. Nicholas Day is on the 6th? There is an interesting historical reason for this which not many people are aware of. Before the transition to so-called German mechanical time in 1547, people didn’t tell the time by using clocks and watches, but rather by the position of the sun in the sky. So the day began not at midnight, but at sunset. Morning began when the sun came up, and noon was six o’clock rather than twelve. Since time wasn’t measured mechanically it didn’t really matter that the time between six o’clock and twelve o’clock was much shorter in winter than in summer. Although people have long ago gotten used to telling time by clocks, the tradition of Mikuláš visiting on the evening of 5th December is a relic of this era when people told the time by the sun, when because the day started at sundown, it was already December 6th by the time Mikuláš started making his rounds.

Anna Fodor is a British writer with Czech and Slovak roots, who found her way to Prague at the age of 22. She is a graduate of English Language and Literature from the University of Leeds and has an MA in Linguistics from University College London. She likes to write about Czech life and society from the perspective of somebody on the periphery.