While many of us are gearing up for Christmas Day, some communities will begin the festivities early this year on Saint Nicholas Day, marked on 6 December. Officially the feast day of Saint Nicholas, the Christian festival is celebrated across Europe with gift-giving.

The day is marked on 6 December in Western Christian countries, but it is celebrated several weeks later on 19 December in Eastern Christian countries. It is marked with presents, parades, feasts and festivals.

Who was Saint Nicholas?

The figure of Saint Nicholas is derived from Nicholas of Myra, a 4th century Christian saint and Greek bishop of the community of Myra, in Asia Minor. During his lifetime, he gained a reputation of gift-giving by putting coins in people's shoes - which is where the Christmas tradition of giving presents originates. In 1087, Italian merchants stole his body from Myra and took it to the town of Bari in southern Italy, which still celebrates St Nicholas Day to this day.

Saint Nicholas inspired the figures of Santa Claus and Father Christmas. The historic figure is referred to by many names across Europe, such as Nikolaus in Germany or Sinterklaas in the Netherlands.

Santa Claus
Saint Nicholas inspired the figure of Father Christmas and Santa Claus Kenzo Tribouillard/AFP/Getty Images

What myths and traditions are associated with St Nicholas Day?

According to legend, Saint Nicholas is believed to visit homes with an evil spirit — known as Krampus in Austrian and German folklore — who punishes badly behaved children.

The "half-goat" and "half-demon" is said to carry chains, believed to symbolise the binding of the devil by the Christian Church. On the evening of 5 December, the night before St Nicholas Day, Krampus is said to roam the streets.

In some towns in Germany and Austria, people dress as Krampus and take part in parades sometimes referred to as Krampuslauf.

Before St Nicholas Day, children traditionally leave their shoes in front of the fireplace or at the front door with the hope of finding small gifts in them on the day.