December the 6th….An excited little girl runs to the front door….will Sankt Nik have called and what would he have left in her shoes?…..
I have loved researching the legends behind Sankt Nikolaus and reciting some of the stories to Livvy. Our German Christmas Adventures so far has been a brilliant learning adventure… 🙂 But, yes there is normally always a ‘but’! this tradition has foxed me!! It wasn’t until we had clarification from a native that I actually understood what the heck was going on!!
So, it isn’t just Germany that celebrates St. Nik’s day but many other European countries too, Holland, Belgium, Austria and Switzerland also mark the day. On the evening of the 5th of December little boys and girls leave their newly polished shoes at the front door hoping that the passing St. Nik will fill them with fruit nuts and if they were very lucky – sweeties 🙂 Of course this would only happen if the children had been good! For if they had been not so good he would leave them a green stick (or a switch as it is called) as a symbol of punishment for their naughtiness!
It is believed that the real St. Nikolaus lived in the 4th century and was actually a Greek Bishop. In other European countries he is the patron saint of sea-faring men. He is also known as the protector of children and it is this that gives him the association with the leaving of gifts for children. He became the model for Weihnachtsmann (Father Christmas); interestingly this is where the name ‘Santa Claus’ was coined; i.e. Sankt [Ni]Klaus!
Now comes the interesting theology part…. Martin Luther (a German priest and a prominent figure of the Protestant Reformation ) believed that people should not glorify saints…so he made changes to the customs surrounding the giving of gifts to children at this time of the year (although he modified from the 6th to the 24th)…instead of out-right banning the popular custom he simply changed St. Nik’s persona to that of the Christ Child, it was then therefore Jesus who became the bearer of gifts. In today’s Germany many regions have Christkindl bestowing gifts on the 24th December.
“Nikolaus traditions vary as widely from region to region as his guise and name. He appears as Ruhklas, Pelznickel, Klasbur, etc. He is afoot or astride a white horse, a mule, or even a goat. More diverse than those of the saintly Nikolaus are the many legends and traditions surrounding his often wild companions (Krampus, etc.). The pagan origin of all of these figures is evident although difficult to trace.
His best known companion is Knecht Ruprecht (poem), “Knecht” meaning servant. Historically, Ruprecht was a dark and sinister figure clad in a tattered robe with a big sack on his back in which, legend has it, he will place all naughty children.
St. Nikolaus also appears together with St. Peter, with an angel, the Christchild (Christkindl or Christ Child). As the splendor of the candle-lit Christmas tree and emphasis on the birth of Christ, began to shift the function of the gift-giving St. Nikolaus, Knecht Ruprecht became the servant and companion of the Christchild. In this role Ruprecht became the patron saint of Christmas and was called “Weihnachtsmann,” (literally “Christmas Man”) Father Christmas or Santa Claus.”
I find theology absolutely fascinating but it does make for some hectic reading!!!
One thing is for sure St. Nik, Father Christmas, Santa Claus,Weihnachtsmann, Christkindl whatever you want to call the bearer of gifts ensures that little girls and boys get super excited at the prospect of gifts!! 😉
Oh and by the way, Sankt Nik did visit our household last night and bestowed and fruit and sweeties 😉