Mikołajki: St Nicholas Day in Poland

Day of Mikołajki and gifts from Santa Claus

6th December, the St Nicholas Day called in Poland Mikołajki (short for Dzień Świętego Mikołaja), is one of the most important days to the children in Poland. They get gifts from the Santa Claus on the night between the 5th/6th December. He places the presents somewhere close to their beds, with smaller packages hidden for example under the pillow and the bigger ones lying on the floor next to the bed, and those are the first things the children see after waking up in the morning of 6th Dec.

Most of the schools in Poland organize also a special Mikołajki event, when the children share gifts between each other. Weeks earlier they draw cards with each other’s names written on them, and then exchange the small symbolic presents during the schoolday that is closest to the day of Mikołajki (for example if it falls on Sunday like in 2015, the event could be held on any day around that weekend). Such way of exchanging the gifts is even popular among some close student groups at universities, or even (rarely) in some workplaces.

Many people prepare also small gifts for their closest friends, family, and for beloved ones, and gift them randomly on the 6th Dec saying that the Santa had “accidentally left the package in a wrong place”.

In Poland the gifts hidden under the Christmas Tree later in December are believed to be left for example by an Angel (Aniołek) or the Little Child (Dzieciątko, the Baby Jesus) – it depends on the beliefs of a particular region. Even though this part of the Christmas traditions started to be influenced by the Western media already, the Santa Claus in Poland has still his special night exclusively on the 6th Dec.

Mikołajki-in-Poland (1)
Girl in a Opoczno folk costume region during the day of Mikołajki in a nursery school, 1980s in Poland [source].

Mikołajki in the past

The day of Mikołajki hasn’t been always celebrated as it is nowadays. The idea of Santa Claus / St Nicholas (Św. Mikołaj) bringing gifts to the children started becoming widespread here only in the 19th century. Before that it was popular mostly among the wealthier families, for example of szlachta (Polish nobility) or burghers. Mikołajki were widely celebrated already at the end of 19th and beginning of 20th century, but gained the biggest popularity only after the end of the 2nd World War.

In around 18th century and later the so-called “St Nicholas boxes” were very popular in some parts of Poland. They were set up close to the churches and the wealthier people were putting small donations inside, which were later gifted to the poorest inhabitants of the village, for example to the girls who couldn’t afford a dowry.

In the traditional meaning, St Nicholas was worshipped in rural parts of Poland mostly as the patron saint of the shepherds and their herds, and as the guardian of wolves (both protecting the human settlements from them but also protecting the wolves from any harm). He would be the saint who always makes sure that the wolves aren’t dying of hunger, but also aren’t too much of a threat to the humans and to domestic animals.

Mikołajki-in-Poland (2)
A wayside shrine with St Nicholas and a wolf in Kryłów, Poland [source].
People in some regions of Poland, particularly those closest to the Carpathian Mountains and in the eastern parts of the country, believed that the wolves were having their gatherings on the night between 5th/6th Dec (the same night that is celebrated as “Mikołajki” nowadays). According to the old folk tales the wolves debrief of the events to St Nicholas and debate on the distribution of prey for the rest of the winter during that special night.

Shepherds were praying to St Nicholas, lightning fireplaces and cleaning their cottages after the end of each herding season. In some regions the shepherds were also leaving special offerings for the Saint on the altars of local churches, asking for protection from the wolves in the following year. The offerings consisted most often of wreaths made of flax and hemp, selected herbs, and dead animals the shepherds had hunted in the woods. That custom was an effect of merging the worship of the saint with much older beliefs in an unknown Slavic deity, and highly condemned by the Christian priests.

Starym ksiądz pleban mówił z ambony zwyczajem,
Niech się każdy podzieli z świętym Mikołajem;
Nie chce li kto w dobytku szkody mieć od wilka,
Więc my pośle barana, gęsi i kur kilka.

In many rural regions of Poland processions dedicated to St. Nicholas were organized, and that custom survived in a few Polish villages even until nowadays. A person was dressing up as the Saint and visiting all the local houses, accompanied by various symbolic figures such as a “devil”, “angel”, “priest”, “cheemney sweeper”, “soldier”, and others. Each figure was meaningful, symbolizing an aspect of life, for example a “newlywed couple” was representing the transitional state between the youth and the adulthood.

People in the procession were also bringing small symbolic gifts and giving them to all inhabitants of the village, regardless of their age. The good people could’ve get for example a juicy apple, but the misbehaving ones would get a bag of nut shells, dry peels of the onions or even a dead mouse.

Such kinds of processions were slowly dying out over time and eventually suppressed during the communist times, when all kinds of “private” gatherings were seen as a threat to the regime.

Mikołajki-in-Poland (4)
Procession of traditional “Chodzyni Mikołajów” reenacted in the village of Jaworzynka [source]
Mikołajki-in-Poland (5)
People dressed as devils during a reenactment of “Chodzyni Mikołajów” in the village of Istebna [source].
Remnants of the custom of the processions can be seen during the school events of Mikołajki mentioned earlier above.

In many schools the gifts are collected from all the students from the classes, and then redistributed by a group of older schoolers or teachers dressed as St Nicholas, Angels, and often a Devil (nowadays also many Elves, Santa Claus helpers, appear in such groups).

Mikołajki-in-Poland (3)
A group of Saint Nicholas with Angels and Devils about to distribute small gifts among primary school kids on the 6th Dec [source].

Source of the wycinanka on the first image: Galeria Folk.

My general sources / book recommendations [in Polish only].

Rebloggable version on my tumblr blog: [link].


2 thoughts on “Mikołajki: St Nicholas Day in Poland

Add comment

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s