It is very traditional to leave whole walnuts, clementines, and/or chocolate coins in the shoes. If you have whole walnuts, and you crack them, then you can make floating walnut shell candles later in February for Candlemas!
This year I actually forgot all about Saint Nicholas Day until the night before, and so I just put in tiny gifts that were going to be for the stocking on Christmas morning. Any small present is totally fine. Happily I had on hand some handmade felt balls for Zac's little slingshot (from A Toy Garden).
Zac got two of his shoes and filled one with baby carrots and the other with hay from the rabbit's stash. He also filled one of my shoes for good measure. Hungry horses! So his other shoe I put a little spatula with gingerbread man designs on it, as a promise that we will do Christmas baking this year. And in my own shoe I put some unopened handmade soaps. Done!
If you remember about Saint Nicholas Day far enough in advance to tell a story that takes several nights, you can use the series of 6 stories by Christine Natale or read Jakob Streit's short chapter book, Saint Nicholas.
by Jakob Streit
If you are like me and forget, here is a nice short & sweet version to tell the night before: Saint Nicholas, the Generous Bishop.
Demi did a lovely picture book but it does include the part of Nicholas's story where he brings back to life the small boys who had been dismembered and pickled in brine, so if you don't want that in a holiday story I would wait on her book until you do that saint in Second Grade.
The Legend of Saint Nicholas
Seeing Zac's tennis shoes outside his bedroom door made me want to get real Dutch wooden shoes, so I suggest Etsy! There are lots of lovely choices on there! That will add the perfect special touch to next year's celebration. Oh, and this 4 inch wooden shoe cookie cutter from TheFussyPup. I'm not a huge fan of making rolled sugar cookies but this is absolutely irresistable!!
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