St. Nicholas is believed to have been born to a Greek family in Asia Minor (modern-day Turkey) in the 3rd century AD. He was said to have traveled to Palestine and Egypt, and to have been the Bishop of Myra in the 4th century. Tradition has it that he attended the first Council of Nicaea, in AD 325.
By the 6th century AD, his tomb in Myra had become a shrine, and in 1087, his remains were stolen and brought to Bari, Italy. The remains – whether those of Nicholas or of someone else – are still in the basilica of San Nicola.
Nicholas is believed to have been exceedingly generous, once paying dowries for three young girls who, otherwise, would have been forced to support themselves through prostitution. He was supposed to have given gifts widely. He is the patron saint of Greece and of Russia, and during the Middle Ages, churches all over Europe were dedicated to him.
The Dutch called him “Sinterklaas”, and when they moved to the New World, the name gradually morphed to the far more familiar “Santa Claus”. A Greek bishop in Turkey grew to be associated with a rotund, jolly, gift-giving man who lives at the North Pole and rides a sleigh drawn by reindeer – at least, in the States.
In Czech, the name “Nicholas” is “Mikuláš”. Every year, on the evening of December 5, children enjoy Mikuláš celebrations in which three adults – one dressed as an angel, one dressed as a devil, and one dresses as Nicholas himself – visit them.
The three ask the children if they’ve been good during the year, with the devil playing, well, the devil, whose job it is to intimidate them. By tradition, the devil carries a sack, which is meant to be used to carry bad children to hell. The angel, of course, is the smiling figure who hands out candy.
In the past, these three roles were played by relatives or family friends. These days, renting a Mikuláš trio is popular, since the children won’t recognize them under the costumes and makeup.
Children look forward to another Christmas visitor, one who is also connected with presents. Santa Claus, while making his presence felt in the Czech Republic, still has considerable competition from the Baby Jesus (in Czech, “Ježíšek”).
It is Ježíšek who brings presents to little boys and girls, despite efforts to introduce Jolly Old St. Nicholas as the giver of gifts. Unlike Santa Claus, Ježíšek has no traditional appearance. He can be a little boy, a toddler, or a baby. Like his larger counterpart, Ježíšek does come from the sky, and children watch for him on Christmas.
Despite the fact that Ježíšek is a religious figure, he remains popular in the largely atheist Czech Republic. He is such an integral part of Christmas that a Christmas ad that ran a few years ago proudly proclaimed that Ježíšek does his holiday shopping online.