Wearing bishop's vestments with gold embroidered red cape, miter and carrying a golden crosier, bishop's staff, an elderly white bearded St. Nicholas, arrives on the doorsteps of children's homes on December 5th St. Nicholas Eve, Nikolausabend, and 6th St. Nicholas Day, Sankt Nikolaustag, in many areas of Germany and Europe.
In some regions of Germany he is accompanied by a brown clad, hooded and soot smudged attendant Knecht Ruprecht, Servant Ruprecht, and together they often visit schools or meet children who are out and about in the days leading up to St. Nicholas Eve.
Much excitement as well as a bit of work fill those days, because winter boots or shoes must be carefully cleaned and polished ready to hold the carrots, apples or hay put into the one each child is allowed to place in front of a door, or perhaps on a window sill, on the evening of 5th December, Nikolaus 'St. Nicholas Eve'.
It is then the saint is believed to visit, feed his white horse the contents of the boots and, if the owners have behaved well during the previous year, refill them with candies, amongst them perhaps the first letter of their name in chocolate and some Spekulatius as well as small gifts. All of which are meant to be shared with family and friends.
However, should they have been somewhat less than good, it could be that when they rush to inspect their Nikolaus Stiefel, Nikolaus boot, in the morning it will be to find only a piece of charcoal or a twig.
Poems and songs are learned for a visit from St. Nicholas, small presents made or cookies and Niklaus Bread Men baked for him, then when the evening comes families, friends and neighbors wait as he goes from house to house knocking on doors. For the children a time of wonder and mounting excitement.
At least on the first occasion after that there could be some trepidation, as he carries with him a large golden book and somehow in this book there is a list of the year's deeds and misdeeds.
The children, and often adults, stand in front of Sankt Nikolaus as he reads aloud from the list and questions them:
Have you been well behaved this year?, Did you work hard at school?, Was it you who broke that window?.
St. Nicholas opens the gift sack held by Knecht Ruprecht, who in the past was a dark, frightening figure wearing a torn, dirty robe and carrying a large sack on his back in which, the children were told, he would put all those who were naughty. Although his reputation as a disciplinarian is no longer as terrifying as it was in those days, he can still strike a little fear into the hearts of children who have been "naughty", and not "nice", in the build up to Saint Nicholas arrival.
If the list of misdeeds in St. Nicholas book is too long then it could be that the hopeful recipient will not only receive no praise but also leave empty handed this year, although perhaps with the intention that for the next St. Nicholas Day they will make sure things will turn out differently.
Songs are sung, poems are recited, talents displayed, the hand made gifts given him, then St. Nicholas and his traveling companion must leave because there are many homes to visit before the night is over.
Who is St. Nicholas? These days he is thought of more as a kindly old man than a catholic "Saint".
He is a mixture of several beliefs and traditions although thought to be mainly based upon Nicholas of Myra, now a region in Turkey but in the 4th century part of Greece, and also Nicholas Abbey of Sion, later Bishop of Pinara, both men renowned and admired for the work they did helping the sick, oppressed, and poor.
The historical and legendary St. Nicholas, Bishop of Myra, a Christian bishop celebrated for performing miracles and secretly leaving gifts for the poor and deserving in their shoes, probably never existed.
Nevertheless, although no longer recognized as a saint by the Catholic church, he is remembered and revered amongst Christians and remains the patron saint of amongst others children, sailors, marriageable girls, travelers and Amsterdam, as well as the protector and friend of all those in need or in trouble.
Nicholas of Myra died in 343 AD, on December 6th, the date commemorated for generations as St. Nicholas Day, and a day of enchantment and the spirit of Christmas for young children, while the folklore surrounding him is an inspiration to live a selfless and considerate life.
As Nicholas was a Catholic saint when Martin Luther introduced the protestant religion to Germany he ordered a Christkind, Christ Child, celebration on Christmas Eve was to be substituted for the Catholic Nikolaus festivities.
Nevertheless the tradition is followed by many protestants, while religious families sometimes choose to focus on December 6th as their time for gift giving, by this making sure that it is Jesus' birth which is celebrated at Christmas, and not the commercialized Father Christmas or Santa Claus who has grown from the St. Nicholas legends and traditions.
So in many homes around Germany on December 6th an benevolent old man with a white beard, red cape and a bishops miter will appear, and ask Have you been good this year?, to be answered with Yes even if there are sure to be one or two lapses to be seen in his golden book.
While those who don't actually see him will know they have not been forgotten because, instead of the treats which had been left for a white horse, chocolates, sweets and gifts will be lying in their highly polished boot or shoe.
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The Baker's Dozen: A Saint Nicholas Tale. A beautifully illustrated classic tale, with a child friendly 'Nikolaus' cookie recipe and pattern included, this enchanting book is sure to become a Christmastime family favorite
ImagesVintage St. Nicholas postcard courtesy St. Nicholas Center Collection, Knecht Ruprecht, St. Nicolas by Cecco di Pietro, Avignon, Chocolate Saint Nicholas photographer Richard Huber, all courtesy de Wikepedia