At the beginning of December, I was informed that on the 5th of December Nikolaus (St Nicholas) would come in the night and fill children’s shoes with presents. This tradition is carried out in parts of Germany, Holland, Austria, Italy and Switzerland amongst others. To me this sounded a lot like Christmas, and it is indeed very similar – here’s a look at the tradition of der Nikolaus.
Who is St Nicholas?
St Nicholas was born in the third century in a village called Patara – the village was in that time part of Greece but has now changed to Turkey. St Nicholas was a Christian who helped the poor by giving them money and food. Some stories say he threw the money/food through a window which landed in the shoes from a poor family – hence why the tradition is to fill children’s shoe with presents. St Nicholas died on 6th December, making St Nicholas’s Day a remembrance for him.
Throughout the years St Nicholas turned into Santa Claus. This happened when the Dutch brought the tradition over to America where they took the Dutch word for St Nicholas “Sinterklaas” and turned it into “Santa Claus”. Although St Nicholas is seen as Santa Claus in many countries, in Germany St Nicholas remains the same as he originally was, and also remains to give gifts on the night of the 5th of December – instead of the 24th.
Nikolaus doesn’t come alone on the night of the 5th December, he brings der Krampus along. This tradition belongs to areas around the Alps for example: Southern Bavaria, Austria and Romania among others. Unlike Nikolaus, the Krampus doesn’t bring any gifts; instead he is there to punish/take away any böse kinder (naughty children) that didn’t behave that year. On the 5th of December some places hold the tradition of the Krampuslauf (literally translated to “Krampus run”), in which people dress up as the Krampus and walk along the streets in the evening, sometimes accompanied by St Nicholas.
The Krampus is half goat, half demon and symbolises the devil. He usually carries chains and bells with him, and a bundle of branches used to hit children with.
So if you were good all year long then Nikolaus will bring you presents – but unlike the Christkind (literally translates to Christchild) he brings very specific presents.
Here’s a list of what he would bring:
Äpfel: Apples – in Germany you can buy special „Nikolaus Äpfel”, they are red, look perfect and are small enough to fit in a shoe!
Lebkuchen: A traditional German biscuit which is similar to gingerbread.
Spekulatius: Another Christmas biscuit (which originally comes from Holland)
Schokolade: Chocolate – often a chocolate Santa Claus/Nikolaus.
The presents reflect back to St Nicholas feeding the poor, and so the children are given healthier food as well as sweets and chocolate. Although these presents are often seen in children’s shoes, nowadays there are also “modern presents” such as toys, games, clothes etc.
I really like this ongoing tradition, I find that sometimes we lose the meaning of our celebrations and forget why we even celebrate in the first place! I hope you enjoyed the story of Nikolaus and that it made you a little bit more excited for Christmas!
Ich wunsche Euch allen frohe Weihnachten,
(I wish you all a merry Christmas,)