Before elves, angels were often depicted helping St. Nicholas give gifts to children.
In most modern-day depictions of St. Nicholas (aka “Santa Claus”), small elves accompany the generous bishop as he graciously hands out gifts to children. However, before elves were ever in the picture, angels followed the beloved saint as he visited houses on the eve of his feast day (December 6).
The origin of this tradition is difficult to trace as it is found in many different countries in Europe, most notably in the Czech Republic, Germany, Austria and Poland. However, a depiction of the saint in St. Nicholas’ Church in Aberdeen, Scotland, reflects this idea, as noted in a description of the artwork of the lower church written in 1892.
Two angels on either side of S. Nicholas hold the purses wherewith he dowered the daughters of a poverty-stricken nobleman, thus saving them from a life of infamy.
In this way the angels appear to be the original helpers of St. Nicholas during his life, assisting him in his secret gift-giving that helped save a man’s daughters from prostitution.
It is fitting for angels to be associated with St. Nicholas, as they are invisible helpers, whose spiritual power is beyond anything we could imagine. As the Catechism of the Catholic Church notes, “The Church venerates the angels who help her on her earthly pilgrimage and protect every human being” (CCC 352).
Just as angels help us on a daily basis (though mostly unseen), we can say with complete faith and confidence that angels did help St. Nicholas before his death as well as after his death when he was admitted into the eternal embrace of Heaven.
Over the years this tradition grew as devotion to St. Nicholas was solidified.
For example, in Austria both “angels” and “devils” would accompany St. Nicholas as he visited houses on his feast day. A periodical from 1897 sheds some light on this European custom.
The character of St. Nicholas in Austria is usually taken by a young man versed in the church catechism. He is arrayed in a long, white robe with a silken scarf and a miter and scepter. He sometimes has with him two angels, dressed somewhat like choir-boys, each of whom carries a basket or bag, and along in the background follow a troop of devils … In the twilight of the fifth of December the bishop makes his rounds to the various houses where the children are collected in parties. He enters with the angels, while the devils wait outside. A great silence falls upon the assembled company, and the children are called up and examined religiously. This is carried out with great seriousness. If the trial is passed successfully, the angels step forward and give the child gifts and nuts and cakes … When the inquisition is over, the devils are allowed to enter and frighten the children … and amuse them with their strange dances and antics … After St. Nicholas has departed the children go to their homes, with the expectation that St. Nicholas will visit each house separately and be more generous and bring them more gifts. So, after saying their prayers with more than usual earnestness, they put baskets and dishes on the window-sills and go to bed.
The way this is celebrated varies according to the region in Europe, and has even grown to incorporate the modern depictions of St. Nicholas. Angels are often explained as the primary helpers who assist St. Nicholas in visiting all the children in the world. Even the toy manufacturer Playmobil has a product featuring “Saint Nicholas and Angel.”
Suffice to say, this tradition has much truth behind it, as Catholics believe angels are real and do help us with our charitable deeds.