Christmas Customs in Germany

St. Nikolaus and his book Credit: Cornelia Lohs

St. Nikolaus and his book Credit: Cornelia Lohs

St. Nikolaus Day

There is one day that German children anticipate almost as much as Christmas: St. Nikolaus Day on the 6th of December. In German speaking countries and Northern Europe there is one day shortly before the holidays that children anticipate almost as much as Christmas: St. Nikolaus Day (Nikolaustag) on the 6th of December.

This has been childrens’ favorite winter day since the 15th Century. In the night of the 6th December, children place their boots or an empty plate in front of the house or bedroom door or next to their bed for St. Nikolaus before they fall asleep, hoping that on the next morning they will find treats and gifts. In previous times oranges, nuts and chocolates, nowadays CDs, books or even an iPod or a new cell phone. But who is Nikolaus? In the 4th century a man with that name lived in Asia Minor which today is part of Turkey, but then belonged to the Roman Empire.

St. Nikolaus, the Wonderworker

St. Nikolaus was a Greek Bishop and performed many good works, especially for children. Because of the many miracles attributed to his intercession, he is also known as Nikolaus the Wonderworker. He had a reputation for secret gift-giving, such as putting coins in the shoes of those who left them out for him. This is why children put boots or plates in front of the door or bed on the night before his feast day, December 6th, which is the anniversary of Nikolaus’ death.

In America, he became the model for Santa Claus, whose English name comes from the Dutch Sinterclaas. People adored him and his deeds were talked about in churches – after his death he became so popular, that various Nikolaus customs developed through the centuries.

Nikolaus Customs in Germany

Everywhere in Germany St. Nikolaus Day is celebrated on the 6th of December. Nikolaus then appears in a bishop’s robe which often is a red coat. He wears a long white beard and he holds in his hand the traditional bishop’s crocier.

In Austria and in the South of Germany he is accompanied by his servant, Knecht Ruprecht, who carries the sack with gifts. In Switzerland, a donkey carries the sack. Nikolaus bangs on the door and is let inside. Children then sing a song or recite a poem for him. Then Nikolaus opens a big book that tells him whether the children have been good or bad. Afterwards, he reprimands or praises them accordingly. Bad children receive the rod by servant Ruprecht but good children are given chocolates and candy.

Nowadays, children aren’t beaten with the rod anymore. Have modern children become so good? In families, Nikolaus is usually a relative in disguise. In schools and kindergardens, the janitor often plays Nikolaus, and in department stores it’s university students or pensioners who need an extra income before Christmas.

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