In Hungary, Santa Claus and Christmas are two separate things, and the Hungarian version of Santa Claus is more tied to St. Nicholas (Mikulás) and has a specific holiday dedicated to him on December 6th. On the night of December 5th, all the children are supposed to clean their shoes and then leave one by the door or window before bed. And that night, St. Nicholas is supposed to come and leave little goodies inside the shoe, like chocolates or trinkets.
The informant participated in this tradition when he was living in Hungary as a child. He explained how this day marks the beginning of the advent calendar in Hungary, and if children behave well for the rest of the month after this day, then they’ll receive lots of presents for Christmas.
The dissociation of Santa Claus with Christmas is a fascinating element of Hungarian folk celebrations. However, I believe there is a reason for this. Again, with Hungary’s greater focus on a more accurate biblical representation of Christmas, it is not surprising that St. Nicholas (or Santa Claus) would be excluded. St. Nicholas was not present on the night Jesus was born, nor did he become a significant figure until several hundred years later, and so his association with the Christmas holiday is not rooted in biblical or historical accuracy, which is important in Hungarian tradition. There is also a certain significance of filling shoes with gifts. Aside from the fact that St. Nicholas was known for putting gold in the stockings of the poor, which I do believe is part of the origin of this tradition (“Who is St. Nicholas?”), the use of shoes as a way of receiving gifts has starkly religious implications. First of all, feet are a recurring symbol of humility in the Bible, exemplified in the story where Jesus washes the feet of his disciples before the Last Supper. Shoes, then, seem to be a stand-in for this symbol of humility, a way of humbling oneself before God and asking for blessings in the form of gifts. This may also be reinforced in the fact that children only leave one shoe, not both, by the window or door. It further instills the values of modesty and humility in children by making them ask for less than the amount that they’re able to take. In addition, there may have been practical economic reasons for using shoes as a way of receiving gifts as well. Hungary is known for having a turbulent economic history following the dissolution of communism in the country, and the use of shoes to receive gifts could be a callback to a time where the majority of the population had to live more modestly. There were no fancy vases or baskets to put gifts in, so children had to use their shoes, which were more accessible household items. Thus, the relationship of this holiday to humility, both in a religious and economic sense, seems striking and certainly worth further inquest. It also marks the beginning of the advent calendar for Hungarians, after which Hungarian children must behave well in order to receive presents on Christmas. St. Nicholas Day thus sets a symbolic precedent for the type of behavior (kindness, humility) that must be displayed for the remainder of the month until Christmas.
“Who is St. Nicholas?” St. Nicholas Center: Discovering the Truth About Santa Claus, https://www.stnicholascenter.org/who-is-st-nicholas. Accessed 30 Apr. 2023.