Saint NicolasSaint Nicolas
©Saint Nicolas|Ville de Nancy

Saint Nicholas traditions

A festival with a long history

Peep into any house in Lorraine on the night of 5 December and look by the fireside. You will see refreshments left for Saint Nicholas, to fortify him on his long journey from house to house. There is a tiny glass of Mirabelle liqueur for the saint, and sugar or carrots for his donkey. In the morning you will know the Saint has called, because the glass is empty and the donkey has eaten every last crumb. Children, if they have been good, will find sweets, fruit and small gifts in their slippers.


From Saint Nicholas to Santa Claus

It is said that Father Whipper whips the very naughty children, but it’s a very rare occurrence that no one will admit to having experienced! Children are very lucky in Lorraine: they are visited by both Saint Nicholas and Father Christmas, so they receive gifts on the 6 and the 25 of December.

In English, Saint Nicholas is translated as Santa Claus. Perhaps you’ve heard of him?

In the Netherlands, he is called Sinterklaas. When the Dutch emigrated to the USA in the early 20th century, Sinterklaas became Santa Claus, an upholder of good behaviour who would reward good children and punish the naughty ones

Saint Nicholas is also celebrated in Belgium, in the Netherlands, in parts of Germany and in Russia, where he is the national patron saint.

The traditional procession at Saint-Nicolas de Port

In the early 11th century, people across western Europe began to venerate Saint Nicholas. The fervour intensified from 1087, when some sailors from Bari, a city in southern Italy, travelled to Myra, then under Muslim occupation, stole his remains and brought them home.

Shortly afterwards, Count Albert of Varangéville, who was passing through Bari, brought one of the saint’s phalanxes back to Port Church, on the banks of the Meurthe a few kilometres south of Nancy, making it an important place of pilgrimage.

Saint-Nicolas de Port became a very important centre for religion and trade in the Middle Ages, and for almost 800 years a procession has been held in the basilica on the Saturday closest to 6 December. Today, over 3,000 people from Lorraine and beyond gather in the light of thousands of candles to share in this spiritual event, unchanged since the 12th century.