Many countries across the world celebrate the arrival of St. Nicholas on different days and different ways. In Ukraine, his arrival is anticipated on December 19th. The night is called “Magic Night” or “St. Nicholas Day”. Much like our Christmas Eve with Santa Claus, the children in Ukraine are just as excited on this day for St. Nick!
Schools, churches and families celebrate the day with visiting and sleigh rides. Schools have plays to tell the story of St. Nicholas and they have visitors from the saint much like Santa here in the US, but he is dressed up as a Byzantine Bishop and is often accompanied by angels. He asks the children questions about their catechism before he gives gifts. St. Nicholas Day is the main day for gift-giving, though the gifts are also becoming associated with Christmas Day on January 7th. Today many Ukrainian churches have St. Nicholas celebrations to help children understand that the holy man Nicholas came long before Santa Claus.
Gifts, placed by St. Nicholas under the pillow or in boots during the night of December 18, are usually sweets—gingerbread, chocolate, candies, fruit, marshmallows—and toys, games, books, a warm scarf or gloves. Adults may also receive a surprise in the morning of the 19th.
In the orphanages that we have visited, this day becomes extra special. Organizations and churches donate necessary gifts to the children so they are too celebrated and not forgotten. It is a favorite day for many and it gives hope to those that feel abandoned.
Images from a Ukrainian orphanage during their St. Nicholas celebrations 2020
The St. Nicholas Center gives us a good detail of the history of this day as follows:
St. Nicholas history in Ukraine goes back to the 10th and 11th centuries. In churches, his icons are prominently placed on the iconostas, usually next to Jesus, the Mother of God, or the patron saint of the church. His icons were found also in nearly every home. In the mountains of western Ukraine where the Hutzels named the four seasons of the year after saints, winter honors St. Nicholas.
Ukrainian folk tradition recognizes two Saint Nicholas figures: “cold Nicholas” and “warm Nicholas.”
Cold Nicholas, the familiar winter saint, is believed to bring the first snow by shaking his beard. In Western Ukraine, accompanied by angel and devil figures, he is celebrated with gift-giving as described above. As the patron saint of spinning, yarns and thread were brought to church to “add to his beard.”
Celebrated in the spring, warm Nicholas, patron saint of farming, is said to walk the land to dry overly wet areas and dampen the dry. On the festival horses begin grazing in the fields, sheep are sheared, and buckwheat sowed. In port areas the festival focuses on Nicholas as patron saint of the seas. Cossacks, like the Greeks, take St. Nicholas icons when sailing the treacherous Black Sea.
Our thoughts and prayers are with our Ukrainian children celebrating the "Magic Night" tonight, and may their special day be filled with joy!