Mikuláš and his companions come bearing gifts but also certain terror. Read about the Czech tradition that scares children.
Every 5th of December, kids want to be home early, before it gets dark. Because on this particular night before the day of St. Nicholas, scary magical creatures roam the streets. It’s one of the Czech Advent traditions.
You might wonder why these celebrations started after dark the day before. The reason for this is the transition to the Gregorian calendar in 1582. Before that, people considered that the days started at nightfall before, not at midnight like today.
Who was St. Nicholas
The tradition refers to St. Nicholas of Myra (sv. Mikuláš in Czech) who gave his inheritance to the poor. This generous man is believed to have looked like the characters many nations adopted as the gift-bearers at Christmas. Heis the same St. Nicholas whose name was adapted to Santa Clause in Northern America. December 6th is this saint’s day which means all boys and men called Mikuláš celebrate their name day and the night before is the one I want to tell you about.
What does Mikuláš do?
The objective of Mikuláš is to reward the well-behaved children and punish those who don’t behave. Just like Barborky two nights before or the mid-December tradition of Lucie. However, only the first one mentioned is the one that persisted probably in all corners of the Czech Republic, probably because it’s a more commercialized version of such a tradition. Groups of people dressed as St. Nicholas, the devil and the angel (or various devils and angels) go around town, visit peoples houses and ask if the children were good or bad. This has become quite a profitable gig for students and other groups of people as some families are willing to pay good money to secure a Mikuláš and his companions.
Sometimes, Mikuláš – who is dressed in episcopal golden robe (although some dress red nowadays) with a tall pointy hat, long beard and a curled cane – reads from his book of good and bad deeds (that the parents told him well ahead), the devil rattles his chains while the angel acts as a protector. The children are usually asked to sing a song or say a rhyme and then they get a bag of fruit, sweets and potatoes or charcoal if they misbehaved (all prepared by the parents, of course). Sometimes, if there are older children, the devil might joke with them or even the parents and try to put them in his sack to take them to hell with him.
It is quite common that elementary school and other organizations hold events on this day. And so, for one day the school classrooms turn into hell and heaven and whole families can come and enjoy this festivity together.
Children’s reaction to Mikuláš
As you can imagine, the reactions of the children are of all sort – some find it funny, some are just shy whilst other children might be scared a lot. And that is why a large number of families decide not to invite anyone to their homes. Many Czech people would tell you how nervous they became as children when it got dark, waiting for that doorbell to ring. Some hid under the table or behind their parents, some faced their fears and stood in front of the strange crowd, said the rhyme they prepared and were very proud of themselves for having overcome their fear for which they received a bag of sweets. Some people even have funny stories, for example, if the parents asked familiars to dress up but the children recognized their voices or shoes.
There’s an alternative for families who don’t want to invite the crowd to their homes, they put a stocking or a bowl behind the window for the children to find it full later.
Author of the featured picture: Josef Lada