It’s winter. Unless you are the victim of Ionel, a spoilt brat who poured jam into his mother’s guest’s boots (in satirist Ion Luca Caragiale’s short story “Vizita”), you should have no good reason to have in your boots anything other than your own socks and feet. Or so you’d think. Well, not if it’s the 6th of December. On that day, early in the morning, here in Romania you’re likely to find sweets and fruit, or alternatively a rod in your boots. And the “culprit” for that will certainly be Moş Nicolae (Poppa Nicholas).
Moş Nicolae is a legendary white-bearded old man who precedes Moş Crăciun (Santa Claus) in the Romanian winter tradition. Whereas the latter comes on Christmas Eve (24 December), the former drops in during the night between 5 and 6 December and he’s based on a real person: Saint Nicholas, the early Christian Bishop of Myra (a city in Asia Minor, modern-day Turkey).
Born into a well-off family of Greek Christians, Saint Nicholas gave away his fortune to the poor after his parents died and dedicated himself to his Christian calling. Hence, he is the patron saint of the poor, of widows and orphans.
One particular story further highlights Saint Nicholas’s compassionate and philanthropic side: there was once a father with three daughters; they were so poor that the father was unable to give his daughters any dowry; so the girls risked remaining unmarried and, moreover, perhaps being forced into prostitution. Saint Nicholas could not allow that to happen and one night he secretly dropped three purses filled with gold coins into the daughters’ chamber. Thus he saved them from poverty and disgrace.
On the other hand, Saint Nicholas is also known for being a harsh disciplinarian who penalises stray behaviour unhesitatingly: it is said that during the Nicaea Synod in 325 AD, presbyter Arius maintained that Jesus Christ was not the Son of God, but a man with supernatural powers, at which claim Saint Nicholas promptly slapped the heretic.
Well, sweet reward and harsh punishment are exactly the options available on Moş Nicolae Day: the legendary old man, having monitored how children have behaved over the year, comes at night to drop into the little ones’ boots candies and chocolate, if they kids behaved, or else a rod (used for, ahem, disciplinary purposes in strict, “traditional” home education), if the kiddies misbehaved.
Mind you, the prerequisite for any gift-giving here is that the children clean and polish their boots nicely, and leave them somewhere accessible to Moş Nicolae, who comes riding a snow-white horse: i.e. on a windowsill or near a doorway – where, incidentally, generous tradition-keeping parents can also sneak easily at night...
As for the much feared rod, the good news is that if you put it in water and it blossoms by New Year’s Eve, everyone, including the naughty kids who received it, will have a fruitful and prosperous new year.
6 December is the first celebration of the winter and as such it inaugurates the festive season. So celebrate this sweet preface to Christmas by giving small gifts to your dear ones and congratulating those called Nicolae and Nicoleta on their (compassionate but demanding) saint day.