Today is the Feast of St. Nicholas, or St. Nicholas Day as it is commonly called. In the United States we don’t really celebrate St. Nicholas Day, but in some European countries it is just as big a deal as Christmas is here. St. Nicholas was a Bishop in Lycia (modern-day Turkey) during the 4th Century A.D. One legend regarding his works and character is as follows: St. Nicholas heard that children in a neighboring village were impoverished and starving because of a famine. So, he instructed his own servants to harvest everything on his estate and they all traveled to the village and distributed the food to the starving children. No matter how much he gave away, there always seemed to be more in his sack. There are other versions of this story, but the common theme is that they all involve miraculous quantities of food provided by St. Nicholas. Because he was willing to give it away, God helped him to provide it. The St. Nicholas Center has an enormous amount of information about St. Nicholas’s life, his works, and ways that his feast day can be celebrated — it is worth a visit. You might be surprised by how much our modern-day Christmas resembles this ancient feast day! And, beyond the fun, St. Nicholas is a wonderful model for how to be a good human being; the embodiment of love, kindness, and generosity.
For our little celebration at home we had each of the kids fill a bag for each other and hang it on the doorknob to be opened in the morning. Europeans typically use shoes but I made bags because they are cleaner, and can be reused year after year. In this year’s bag each of my children received candycanes, a chocolate orange, two gold dollar coins, a St. Nicholas peg doll, and a book. We also read The Baker’s Dozen: A St. Nicholas Tale , written by Aaron Shepherd with pictures by Wendy Edelson. This beautifully illustrated children’s book tells the story of a baker, Van Amsterdam, who always gives his customers exactly what they pay for; no more, no less. That is, until he receives a special visitor who teaches him that sometimes by giving more, we get more in return. This afternoon we’ll be baking and decorating Speculatius, or German spice cookies, for ourselves and for others. You can find the recipe below. Happy St. Nicholas Day!
Speculatius (German Spice Cookies), from St. Nicholas Center
Mix in order:
1 cup shortening
2 cups white sugar
4 eggs whole
¾ teaspoon salt
2 teaspoons baking powder
4 cups flour
4 teaspoons cinnamon
2 teaspoons allspice
2 teaspoons nutmeg
2 teaspoons ginger
2 teaspoons cloves
Turn out onto a floured board. Knead in about one cup additional flour or as much as you need until dough is no longer sticky and is easy to handle.
Put into a plastic bag and refrigerate until chilled and stiff. Then you are ready to roll out and cut the cookies. Cut off a manageable piece and keep the rest cool until you are ready for more.
For many little cut-out shapes, roll out the dough thinly. Thin cookies are tastiest.
For the larger, decorated St. Nicholas cookies, roll the dough to about ¼ inch thickness. Cut out cookie around paper pattern. Place on greased baking sheet.Then get inspired. Use scrappy bits of dough to decorate your Nicholas. For a beard press a little dough through a sieve or a garlic press. Use little balls of dough for eyes or buttons.
Bake at 350º F. until golden-brown. These keep forever in tins in the freezer or for two–three weeks on the shelf.