St. Nick's Day in Europe
Nova Zagora, Bulgaria
In Central and Eastern Europe, the North American concept of Santa, gifts and December 24th/25th is nearly nonexistent. In these parts, Saint Nicholas (along with his fest day on the December 6th) reigns supreme.
Saint Nicholas is the patron saint of children, sailors, fishermen, nudists, the falsely accused, pawnbrokers, prostitutes, repentant thieves, and many (many) cities. So beloved is he by the Russians, one commonly heard saying is "if God dies, at least we'll still have St. Nicholas." He's often called upon by mariners who are in danger of drowning or being shipwrecked.
Saint Nicholas had a reputation for secret gift-giving, such as putting coins in the shoes of those who left them out for him, and is now commonly identified with Santa Claus. Nicholas was never officially canonized; his reputation simply evolved among the faithful, as was the custom in his time.
In his most famous exploit, a poor man had three daughters but could not afford a proper dowry for them. This meant that they would remain unmarried and probably, in absence of any other possible employment would have to become prostitutes. Hearing of the poor man's plight, Nicholas decided to help him, but being too modest to help the man in public (or to save the man the humiliation of accepting charity), he went to his house under the cover of night and threw three purses (one for each daughter) filled with gold coins through the window opening into the man's house.
One version has him throwing one purse for three consecutive nights. Another has him throw the purses over a period of three years, each time the night before one of the daughters comes "of age". Invariably, the third time the father lies in wait, trying to discover the identity of their benefactor. In one version the father confronts the saint, only to have Saint Nicholas say it is not him he should thank, but God alone. In another version, Nicholas learns of the poor man's plan and drops the third bag down the chimney instead; a variant holds that the daughter had washed her stockings that evening and hung them over the embers to dry, and that the bag of gold fell into the stocking.
From this tale has grown the custom of secret gifts on the Eve of Saint Nicholas. Santa Claus, the designation for the jolly, bearded figure of folklore who is credited with bringing gifts to children on Christmas Eve, is an American derivation of the Dutch Sinterklaas.