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Evan Hughes
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September 2011
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Evan Hughes [userpic]
Weinachten Part II: St Nikolaus

Before there was Santa, there was St Nikolaus. In Southern Germany, St Nikolaus is still bigger than Santa, and even has his own holiday, St Nikolaus Day, which is celebrated on December 6th. He was originally a Greek Bishop in Myra (Now Demre in Turkey), and one of his saintly acts was to sereptitiously deliver 3 purses filled with gold coins to the home of an impoverished family with three marriage-aged daughters. This in Southern Germany evolved into the tradition on St Nikolaus day where children place their best shoes either outside their door, or on their windowsill. During the night, St Nikolaus comes by and places goodies in the shoes, if the child's been good, or coal and switches if they child's been bad. Generally, parents put some candies and small toys in their child's shoes, and a couple sprigs of pussywillow to represent the switches just to remind their children that nobody's good all the time. I remember collecting pusswillow from a field in early autumn with some of my friends that their parents would preserve to have ready for St Nikolaus day. Some German children will even become upset if there's not a sprig or two of pussywillow in their shoes come St Nikolaus day.

On the actual day, St Nikolaus comes by some households, knocking first to be ever so polite, where he and the children sing songs and recite poems, and an exchange of gifts is made. He generally asks each child if they've been good and done their homework, but he can also check his big golden book for that information. In the South, he is also is sometimes accompanied by his companion Knecht Ruprecht, who in the past would threaten to beat bad children with St Nikolaus' golden staff. Clearly this isn't done anymore, except maybe sometimes in jest. In my opinion, Ruprecht is an attempt by the church to absorb the tradition and idea of Krampus into Weinachten and advent (which really are all just coopting of Pagan and Roman pre-Christian winter celebrations). 

St.  Nikolaus and Krampus

St Nikolaus and Knecht Ruprecht

My first memory of St Nikolaus comes from an event that happened shortly after my family had moved to Germany. I was 9, and we had discovered Volksmarching, and were on one of our first ones (if not the first one). It was a snowy day, as December days usually are in Southern Germany, and all was pretty peaceful. It may have actually been December 6th, but I can't remember for certain. Well, we're on the course, enjoying the hike, when out of the bushes jumps this rather tall man dressed in clothing the like of which I'd never seen before (St Nikolaus, having been a bishop, dresses in bishop's clothing. It used to be reddish-brown, and white, with gold trim, but since the Coca Cola Santa Claus, the brown's turned red. Sometimes he's also in all white and gold). Needless to say, he scared the living daylights out of me. But, rather than become excited as he expected, or run screaming as many children might do when confronted with a scary stranger, I, being the feisty little boy I was, charged. Screaming, I began beating and kicking poor St Nikolaus' legs. The man was at an absolute loss, and it took some minutes for my parents to pull me off him and then explain across the language barrier (since they had not yet learned German) that we were Americans and that I had no clue who are what he was. Very patiently, he explained St Nikolaus to us, gave me a toy and candy, and then limped back into the bushes. 

I miss St Nikolaus day.

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