Wer ist Sankt Nikolaus?
(In researching the Sankt Nikolaus character for our 2009 Christmas Revels, I came across a very informative and well-presented website on German traditions. I hope you will visit it. Here is some of the basic research that informed our show, used with the generous permission of Hyde Flippo, the author of the pages. - David Parr, Artistic Director)
Who is Saint Nicholas indeed? In various parts of Germany, St. Nicholas goes by different names: “Belsnickle,” “Ruprecht,” “Pelznickel,” and others. Just who was Santa Claus or Father Christmas in reality? Since the Germans (and the Dutch) brought many of their customs to America directly or indirectly, we need to look first at Europe. Across the German-speaking region of Europe there are many kinds of Santa Clauses with many different names. Despite their many names, they are all basically the same mythic character. But few of them have anything to do with the real Saint Nicholas (Sankt Nikolaus or der Heilige Nikolaus), who was probably born around A.D. 245 in the port city of Patara in what we now call Turkey. Very little solid historical evidence exists for the man who later became the Bishop of Myra and the patron saint of children, sailors, students, teachers, and merchants. He is credited with several miracles and his feast day is Dec. 6, which is the main reason he is connected with Christmas. In Austria, parts of Germany, and Switzerland, der Heilige Nikolaus (or Pelznickel) brings his gifts for children on Nikolaustag, Dec. 6, not Dec. 25. Nowadays, St. Nicholas Day (der Nikolaustag) on Dec. 6 is a preliminary round for Christmas.
Although Austria is mostly Catholic, Germany is almost evenly divided between Protestants and Catholics (along with some minority religions). So in Germany there are both Catholic (katholisch) and Protestant (evangelisch) Christmas customs. When Martin Luther, the great Protestant Reformer, came along, he wanted to get rid of the Catholic elements of Christmas. To replace Sankt Nikolaus (Protestants don’t have saints!), Luther introduced das Christkindl (an angel-like Christ Child) to bring Christmas gifts and reduce the importance of Saint Nicholas. Later this Christkindl figure would evolve into der Weihnachtsmann (Father Christmas) in Protestant regions and even cross the Atlantic to mutate into the English term “Kris Kringle.”.
Nikolaustag - 6. Dezember
On the night of Dec. 5 (in some places, the evening of Dec. 6), in small communities in Austria and the Catholic regions of Germany, a man dressed as der Heilige Nikolaus (St. Nicholas, who resembles a bishop and carries a staff) goes from house to house to bring small gifts to the children. Accompanying him are several ragged looking, devil-like Krampusse, who mildly scare the children. Although Krampus carries eine Rute (a switch), he only teases the children with it, while St. Nicholas hands out small gifts to the children. In some regions, there are other names for both Nikolaus and Krampus (Knecht Ruprecht in Germany). Sometimes Krampus/Knecht Ruprecht is the good guy bringing gifts, equal to or replacing St. Nicholas. As early as 1555, St. Nicholas brought gifts on Dec. 6, the only “Christmas” gift-giving time during the Middle Ages, and Knecht Ruprecht or Krampus was a more ominous figure.
Nikolaus and Krampus don't always make a personal appearance. In some places today, children still leave their shoes by the window or the door on the night of Dec. 5. They awaken the next day (Dec. 6) to discover small gifts and goodies stuffed into the shoes, left by St. Nicholas. This is similar to the American Santa Claus custom, although the dates are different. Also similar to American custom, the children may leave a wish list for Nikolaus to pass on to the Weihnachtsmann for Christmas.
Heiliger Abend - 24. Dezember
Christmas Eve is now the most important day of the German celebration. But there's no Santa Claus coming down the chimney (and no chimney!), no reindeer (the German Santa rides a white horse), no waiting for Christmas morning! Families with young children often keep the living room closed off, revealing the Christmas tree to the excited youngsters only at the last minute. The decorated Tannenbaum is the center of the Bescherung, the exchanging of gifts, which takes place on Christmas Eve, either before or after dinner. Neither Santa Claus nor St. Nicholas brings children their gifts for Christmas. In most regions, the angelic Christkindl or the more secular Weihnachtsmann is the bringer of gifts that don't come from other family members or friends.
Around Christmastime in Berlin, Hamburg, or Frankfurt, you'll see Weihnachtsmänner on the street or at parties in their red and white costumes, looking a lot like an American Santa Claus. The German Weihnachtsmann is a fairly recent Christmas tradition having little if any religious or folkloric background. In fact, the secular Weihnachtsmann only dates back to around the mid-19th century. Over the years, the Weihnachtsmann became a rough mixture of St. Nicholas and Knecht Ruprecht. A 1932 survey found that German children were split about evenly along regional lines between believing in either the Weihnachtsmann or the Christkind. But today a similar survey would show the Weihnachtsmann winning out in almost all of Germany.