St. Nicholas in Germany

St. Nicholas in Germany
A Bishop's white, or red, gold embroidered cape over his shoulders, a miter on his head, and carrying a crosier, on December 5 an elderly white bearded "St. Nicholas" arrives on the doorsteps of many of Europe's homes.

It is Nicholas Eve - Nikolausabend, and December 6 is Sankt Nikolaustag - St. Nicholas Day.

In some German regions he is accompanied by a brown clad, hooded and soot smudged attendant "Knecht Ruprecht", Servant Ruprecht, and often seen out and about in the days leading to St. Nicholas Eve.

While his companion in Alpine areas is frightening demon-like Krampus, with a horned wooden mask, sheep or goat skin suit, cow bells hung around his waist, and carrying a sack large enough to take away any naughty children.

St. Nicholas is dressed in traditional Bishop's vestments, but his helpers not only look different depending on the region they have different names: Schmutzli in Switzerland, Knecht Ruprecht in many areas of Germany, Krampus in Austria, Buttnmandle in Berchtesgaden, Bavaria, to name just a few of them.

"Lustig, lustig, tralalala...bald ist Nikolaus wieder da!" but excitement as well as some work fill those days. Winter boots or shoes must be cleaned and polished ready to hold carrots, apples or hay put into the one each child can place in front of a door, or perhaps on a windowsill, on St. Nicholas Eve.

This is when the Saint visits, feeds his white horse their contents and, if their owners have behaved well during the previous year, refills them with candy. Perhaps the first letter of their name in chocolate and some Spekulatius as well as small gifts, and all to be shared with family and friends.

Although should they have been somewhat less than "good", it could be that in the morning when they rush to inspect their "Nikolaus Stiefel", Nikolaus boot, they will only find a piece of charcoal or a twig.

Many legends describe how Nicholas helped poor people and children by secretly giving them gold and other gifts, including one that says he threw gold down a chimney where three poor girls lived. It landed in stockings they had hung by the fireplace to dry and changed their lives.

This legend began the St. Nicholas day tradition that in the morning children would find at least one of their shoes filled with small gifts and candy.

Poems and songs are learned for Der Nikolas: small presents made for him, cookies and Niklaus Bread Men baked, and as evening comes families, friends and neighbors wait while he moves from house to house knocking on doors.

A time of wonder and mounting excitement for children. At least on the first occasion after that there could be some trepidation, because of the golden book he carries that somehow has a list of the year's deeds and misdeeds.

Children, and often adults, stand in front of Nikolaus while 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?

He opens the sack held by Knecht Ruprecht. In the past a dark frightening figure, who wore a torn dirty robe and carried a large sack on his back, where he would put all who had been naughty. At least that is what children were told.

Although his reputation as a disciplinarian is no longer as terrifying as it was in those days, Knecht Ruprecht 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 Nikolaus' book is too long then it could be the hopeful recipient will not only receive no praise but also leave empty handed this year. Perhaps determined that for next Nicholas Day they will make sure things turn out differently.

Songs sung, poems recited, talents displayed, and handmade gifts given him, Nicholas and his traveling companion leave, because there are many homes to visit before the night is over.

But who is St. Nicholas? These days thought of more as a kindly old man than a Catholic "Saint".

His legend is a mixture of several beliefs and traditions but thought to be based mainly on "Nicholas of Myra", born into a wealthy family in what is now a region in Turkey but in the 4th century part of Greece, and to a lesser extent to "Nicholas Abbey of Sion", later Bishop of Pinara, who was born in the 6th century.

Both men were renowned and admired for the work they did helping the sick, oppressed and poor, and during the 9th and 10th centuries accounts of the lives of the two Nicholas became interwoven.

It is thought legendary St. Nicholas, Bishop of Myra, a Christian bishop celebrated for performing miracles and secretly leaving gifts in the shoes of the poor and deserving, never existed as such.

Although recognized as an "optional" saint by the Catholic church since 1969, meaning celebration of his feast day is no longer required, "St. Nicholas" is remembered and revered among both Christian and secular people around the world, and is the patron saint of Children, Sailors, Marriageable Girls, Travelers and Amsterdam.

As well as the protector and friend of all those who are in need or in trouble.

Nicholas of Myra died in 343 AD on December 6, which is the date commemorated for generations as St. Nicholas Day. A day of enchantment and the spirit of Christmas for young children, while the folklore that surrounds him is an inspiration to live a selfless and considerate life.

As Nicholas was a recognized Catholic saint when Martin Luther introduced the protestant religion to Germany, he ordered a "Christkind", Christ Child, celebration on Christmas Eve to replace the earlier Catholic Nikolaus festivities.

A tradition still followed by many protestants, with religious families sometimes choosing to focus on December 6th as their time for gift giving, as this way they make sure it is Jesus' birth that is celebrated at Christmas.

Not the commercialized "Father Christmas" or "Santa Claus" who has grown from the legends and tradition surrounding St. Nicholas.

So in many homes on December 5 and 6 a benevolent old man with a white beard, cape and bishop's miter appears, and asks "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 that golden book.

On 6 December, Nikolaustag, St. Nicholas often visits children′s homes, Kindergartens and schools to reward children who have been good with small gifts. Often accompanied by Knecht Ruprecht, Krampus or other helpers, who give bad children a bunch of dark birch twigs, which are tied together and meant to be used as a whip, although today usually every child gets goodies.

But Nicholas does not always make a personal appearance, so children leave their shoes by a window or door on the night of December 5, hoping to find in the morning that the saint has been and filled them.  

So even those who don't actually see him will know they have not been forgotten because, instead of the treats left for a white horse, chocolates, candy and gifts will be lying in their highly polished boot, shoe...or these days perhaps it is a thoroughly cleaned sneaker.

Frohen Nikolaus!

ImagesVintage St. Nicholas postcard courtesy St. Nicholas Center Collection, Knecht Ruprecht Realschule Balingen, St. Nicolas of Myra, Saint Vincent Archabbey

You Should Also Read:
A Nikolaus, A Bread Man Recipe
St. Martin's Day
Christmas in Germany

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