Mikuláš (Saint Nicholas's Eve)

For children, the evening of December 5 is one of the most exciting in the Czech calendar

If you're on the streets of Prague on December 5, you may run into a trio of strange characters: St. Nicholas (Mikuláš), an angel (anděl) and a Devil (čert).

For children, the evening before St. Nicholas's Day is one of the most exciting in the Czech calendar, when, depending on how they've behaved during the year, they could be rewarded with candy or -- theoretically, at least -- carried off to hell.

For adults, on the other hand, it's an excuse to dress up in costumes, have some fun and possibly earn some money by hiring yourself out to the parents of young kids.

St. Nicholas, whose appearance supposedly inspired Santa Claus's, first asks the children to recite a poem or sing a song. He then asks them whether they've been good or bad.

Good kids are rewarded with candy or other treats, courtesy of the Angel, but bad kids might end up in the Devil's sack or, at the very least, get only a sack of potatoes or coal.

If St. Nicholas isn't around, children can hang a stocking from their window, which he'll fill before dusk. Children also receive St. Nicholas presents from parents and relatives.

Mikuláš is particularly good fun in Prague, where parents traditionally bring their children to Old Town Square between 5pm and 8pm.

In small towns and villages, St. Nicholas, the angel and the devil typically children at home.

This unusual ritual probably originated in medieval schools, where examiners often had two assistants, one of whom was responsible for punishing children and the other responsible for rewarding them.

This custom seems to have become linked to legends about St. Nicholas, who is said to have helped children in times of emergency by secretly passing them money, either through windows or down chimneys.

In the Czech Republic, around 120 churches have been dedicated to the child-loving saint, the most famous of them probably being the Baroque Kostel sv. Mikuláše (Church of St. Nicholas) in Prague's Malá Strana district.

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