St Nicholas is the most popular saint in Serbia, at least in terms of the number of families celebrating his feast day (19 Dec/6 Dec Julian calendar) as a slava (family patron saint’s day).
He is also revered as a gift bringer and it was on St Nicholas’ that kids were given presents before WWII in Serbia. Since WWII, that role is taken over by Deda Mraz (socialist reimagining of Santa Claus, aka Coca Cola’s consumerist version of St Nicholas), however even without this attribute St Nicholas’ has a deep hold on Serbian religious and mystical imagination.
Some ethnologists, like the great Veselin Čajkanović who worked on understanding the Serbian religious customs and belifes. saw the popularity of the cult of St Nicholas among Serbs as related to our pre-Christian head deity. According to Čajkanović, as explained in his essay “On the Serbian head deity” (O srpskom vrhovnom Bogu) in the pre-Christian times we did not worship a sky god the most, like Zeus, Apollo or Thor, but rather a chthonic god of death and mystery whose name was Dabog (preserved in the folk name for the devil: hromi Daba). He was most akin to Greek Hermes and Hades, or Nordic Odin (Wodan), and was associated with magic, healing, death, crafts, mining and wolves (among other things).
During the Christianisation of Serbs, most notably pushed by St Sava, many of the old cults remained, but were transferred to Christian saints (the names of old gods became taboos and considered demonic). Čajkanović theroised that the attributes of Dabog were moved to various saints (including St George, Archangel Michael, as well as St Sava himslef) but most importantly to St Nicholas as patron saint of liminal activities such as travel, as well as his role as the saint who punishes and rewards. Suitably for a god of death, St Nicholas is celebrated close to midwinter when the days are the shortest, and, according to former beliefs recorded by Vuk Karadžić in 19th century, he also used be considered the carrier of souls to heaven. Even his association with water is considered similar to the role of Greek Charon, who ferries the souls across Acheron and Styx to Hades’ realm. Much like Dabog (and the devil in folk belief), St Nicholas is associated with mills and especially watermills and also with shoes. One of the rituals in Serbia is for children to clean a pair of shoes on the eve of St Nicholas’ feast day, put them in a window and wait for the present.
Further proof of St Nicholas’ association with death and high reverence in Serbia are his cultic sites. Belgrade’s church dedicated to him is a church at the New Cemetery. On the other hand, St Nicholas’ cathedral in Bari (where his remains are kept since 1087) received many gifts from almost all rulers of Nemanjić dynasty. The most important ones were by Stefan Milutin who donated a huge silver and gold altar (no longer in existence) and an icon which is kept by St Nicholas’ tomb (which survives to this day), which was donated by Stefan Dečanski, whose eye sight was miraculously restored by the Saint.
Reverence for St Nicholas remained strong among Serbian elites even after the middle ages. One of the most impressive and poetic paintings by Uroš Predić shows him as a protector not only of Serbs, but also of all nations of Yugoslavia.
Depicted in his traditional role as the patron of seafarers (and travellers in general) he is helping a varied bunch of people aboard a small boat named Vera (Faith) tossed about by the turbulent sea. In the boat there are representatives of all faiths, ethnicities and classes in Yugoslavia, panicking while trying to keep it afloat. While the two Christian (Orthodox and Catholic) clerics are facing triumphant, dazzling St Nicholas, the figures symbolising Jews, Muslims and Albanians are also trying to keep the boat afloat through the storm by tossing the water out of it to keep it from capsizing.
Whether you believe Čajkanović or not that he was litterally our head deity, (his books are worth checking out due to their creativity and detail), St Nicholas and his feast day, is still a huge deal for Serbs, even those who do not have him as a patron Saint, with much of the emphasis put on feasting (which is sadly, strictly “posno”/Lenten).