By Molly Snyder Senior Writer Published Dec 04, 2023 at 4:48 PM

Snuggle up with some holiday cheer as OnMilwaukee shares stories of everything merry and bright in the spirit of the season.

The OnMilwaukee Ho Ho Holiday Guide is brought to you by Educators Credit Union, Harley-Davidson Museum and MolsonCoors

If you grew up celebrating St. Nicholas Day – often called St. Nick’s – or celebrate it today with your family, you are part of an elite group of merrymakers. Although it’s a tradition in many parts of the world, in the United States it’s only popular in a handful of cities, all of which have a strong German influence, including Greater Milwaukee; Evansville, Indiana; Cincinnati, Ohio; Fredericksburg, Texas; Newport News, Virginia; and St. Louis, Missouri.

"My husband is from Connecticut and this was all new to him," says Sarah Dosmann, a lifelong Milwaukeean who hung stockings for St. Nick growing up and continues to do so with her two young daughters. "It's the perfect 'appetizer' prior to Christmas."

In Milwaukee, the tradition includes children – and sometimes adults and pets – leaving out shoes or stockings on St. Nick’s Eve, which is December 5. (This year, it's Tuesday, Dec. 5.) On the morning of December 6, they wake to find their shoes or stockings filled with treats and small gifts. Historically, nuts, oranges and chocolates were among the loot.

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"My dad came from a German family and we always celebrated St. Nick. We used adult white cotton socks, nothing fancy. In the toe there was an orange, in the heal a huge homemade popcorn ball and a fair amount of hard candy was thrown in. Oranges in winter were a big treat back then," says Debbie Baran, who grew up and currently lives on the East Side of Milwaukee.

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Many families continue with the giving-of-an-orange tradition today, but usually include higher-dollar items in the mix as well. 

"We continued the tradition throughout my kids' teenage years, but the stocking stuffers got a little pricier. Books, video games, clothing and make-up all found their way into their stockings," says Baran, who also played the role of St. Nick with her three grandchildren. 

"I have enjoyed being St. Nick more than getting stuff as a kid. I like the surprise and happiness it brings," says Baran.

Sherry King also changed up her St. Nick prizes when her kids became adults.

"When the kids got older, I put some airplane booze bottles in the stockings along with an ornament, candy and a few trinkets," says King. "The biggest challenges with St. Nick now is keeping the stockings high enough that the dogs can't rip them down."

Leaving a shoe or boot – rather than a sock or stocking – for St. Nick to fill is also common with some families. And the cleverest kids left the largest piece of footwear in their closets.

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"The night before, my sisters and I would find our biggest shoe or boot possible and we would put it by our back door," says Emmy Fink, who grew up in Racine County. "Our kids do the same exact thing: they usually put out their winter boot, because it holds the most stuff."

Fink says regardless of the size of the boot, the gifts are always small.

"Something like socks, their favorite candy or a small toy," says Fink. "Because it’s not about the gifts, rather the anticipation and the magic that sets the tone for the Christmas season."

Kris Heijnen grew up in Waterford where very few of his friends celebrated St. Nick's, but being of Dutch descent the holiday was honored by his family in a very specific way that included shoes.

"We would put out wooden shoes with carrots in them and a bowl of milk for the horses that St. Nick had taking him from house to house," says Heijnen. "I liked it because it was the first time I got to hear stories about my dad’s childhood and the things he did growing up."

Today, he continues to celebrate with his wife and their son, but now it includes shopping at Target instead of leaving veggies in clogs.

"When Kris and I got married, we started our own tradition of going to Target the night before St. Nick and shopping for each other. We set a price limit and would shop for trinkets, candy and small items while we are both at the store, and then go home and fill our stockings," says (Jamie) Heijnen. "When our son was born in 2019, we added him into the fold and he goes shopping with us."

In Jeanette Bultman's family, she and her siblings would dump out their St. Nick goodies and replace them with a letter for Santa, expressing what they wanted for Christmas. "The stocking became kind of a post box," she says.

Bultman and her husband still honor the holiday with their three kids today. "I'm pretty sure St. Nick shops at Fischberger's," says Bultman.

Families have many different interpretations as to who St. Nick is. It’s believed Saint Nicholas was a Christian bishop who helped the needy during the time of the Roman Empire. But after that, the lore is open for interpretation.

"I lived in the Netherlands for two years where I was an au pair for a Dutch family with three young children," says Bultman. "There, St. Nick [Sinterklaas] brings a big burlap sack full of presents and leaves it in the yard. He arrives from Spain on his steamboat with his helpers."

For the Dutch, and many other Europeans, there is a dark side to the St. Nick narrative. Sinterklaas' helpers, called The Piets, toss bad children into the empty sack and take them back to Spain for a year to teach them a lesson.

Nick Berg's great-grandmother was born in Czechoslovakia, and she and her family brought their St. Nicholas traditions with them when they immigrated to the United States. Her story revolved around Mikulas – aka "St. Nick" – who visited homes with an angel and a devil. Children were asked if they’d been good that year and if so, were rewarded with candy and small treats. If they had not been good, the devil would whip them with chains and haul them to Hell in his sack.

"My great-grandparents’ version of St. Nicholas was a bit different from the kindly bishop we tend to associate with the feast today," says Berg.

Berg's grandma told him stories about how her father and a couple of his pals from church would dress as St. Nicholas, the angel and the devil, and would visit her house on the eve of St. Nick's. They would bang chains on the front door and shout in a loud voice to scare the kids inside and ensure they remained "good."

"To quote my grandma: 'it scared us sh-tless,'" says Berg. 

Hence, ensuing terror in children is no longer a part of the Berg family tradition.

"While the tradition has remained, it evolved into something considerably less terrifying. By the time my mom started celebrating the tradition with me and my siblings, St. Nick had parted ways with his associates," says Berg.

Aside from the threat of a lump of coal, most American kids know only of the generous, all-giving traditions associated with St. Nicholas. (Although Krampusnacht is gaining popularity in Milwaukee.) And for most adults, it's about maximizing the magic of the season rather than threatening children to exhibit their best behavior. (However, truth be told, a little bribery goes a long way this time of year.)

"The best part about St. Nick's is that it's not so crazy full-blown like Christmas can be. I like the simplicity of putting a few surprises in a sock," says Baran. "The biggest challenge is remembering which night St. Nick comes."

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Molly Snyder started writing and publishing her work at the age 10, when her community newspaper printed her poem, "The Unicorn.” Since then, she's expanded beyond the subject of mythical creatures and written in many different mediums but, nearest and dearest to her heart, thousands of articles for OnMilwaukee.

Molly is a regular contributor to FOX6 News and numerous radio stations as well as the co-host of "Dandelions: A Podcast For Women.” She's received five Milwaukee Press Club Awards, served as the Pfister Narrator and is the Wisconsin State Fair’s Celebrity Cream Puff Eating Champion of 2019.