Der Nikolaustag is based off a real person, der Heilige Nikolaus (St. Nicholas), who was born in the 200s A.D. in what we now know as Turkey. He became the Bishop of Myra and the Patron Saint of Children, Sailors, Students, Teachers, and Merchants and was known for giving secret-gifts to the poor and those he protected. It is said that he died on December 6th, 343 A.D., which is why this day is now the day that we celebrate his life and legacy.
St. Nicholas is an integral part of the holiday season and traditional celebration. The story goes that on the night of December 5th, St. Nicholas brings small gifts, such as candy and trinkets, to the good children. In some parts of German-speaking countries, St. Nicholas makes a personal appearance, but in others he does not. In those locations, the children will leave a boot by the window or door of the house – this boot is called the Nikolaus-Stiefel (Nikolaus Boot) and can include a letter from the child to St. Nicholas as well as treats for his white horse/donkey (the animal varies depending on the local tradition). If the child was not good, polite, and/or helpful in the last year, then they would find eine Rute (a Stick) in their boot and subsequently be punished by Knecht Ruprecht/Krampus.
There are also other ways to celebrate the holiday as well that depend on the location that one is in. For example, in Stuttgart, the children will dress up as St. Nicholas and go door to door asking for candy – similar to the American version of Halloween, just a lot less scarier.
The idea of what St. Nicholas looks like came from that of Pelznickel, which one finds in northwestern Germany along the Rhine River, the Saarland, and the Odenwald region of Baden-Wurttemberg near Pfalz. Pelznickel comes from a local tradition that describes a secular version of St. Nicholas who dresses in furs and brings gifts to the children. He is said the be part of the inspiration for the drawing that Thomas Nast (a famous German-American) did of the American Santa Claus. Credit: Denver Public Library From those of us here at the German-American Heritage Foundation & Museum, we hope that you enjoy der Nikolaustag and the rest of the holiday season! Written By Emily Beeland
In the US we have the tradition that if children behave, Santa will bring them toys. If they don’t behave, Santa will bring them coal. In Germany there is a similar tradition but instead of having one person, Santa, giving out everything, you have two people, St. Nicholas giving out toys, and his companion Krampus, giving out coal.
Krampus is an anthropomorphic character that is “half-goat” and “half-demon. While St. Nicholas rewards children that have good behavior with sweets and presents, Krampus punishes misbehaved children.
According to an article published by Maurice Bruce in 1958, belief is that the history of the Krampus goes back to pre-Christian Alpine traditions.
What does Krampus look like? There are multiple different variations of Krampus, but the majority of them share some similar characteristics which include: brown or black hairy fur, cloven hooves and horns similar to those of a goat and they have on a frightening mask with a pointed tongue and fangs. In their Hand Krampus’s carry a chain or whip which they thrash for dramatic, and very frightening, effect. The chain is supposed to symbolize the binding of the devil in the Christian Church. Luckily the chains are usually accompanied by different sized bells, making it easy to hear a Krampus approaching. In folklore it is said that the Krampus also carries around a sack in which he throws the naughty children.
As you may already know on December 6th parts of Europe, including Austria and Germany, celebrate St. Nicholas Day. The night before, December 5th, is Krampus night on which you can find multiple Krampus’s walking around the Towns and Christmas Markets.
When I’m not in Washington DC I live and go to school in Passau, a small city in Bavaria, Germany. Last December I got to experience Krampus night when a friend and I decided to stop by the Christmas Market on our way back from class.
As we were walking down the street we heard bells behind us and after thinking about it for a bit we remembered it was Krampus Night. Both of us were not looking forward to being scared by these very frightening creatures so we quickly walked to the Christmas Market hoping to avoid the “Krampuslauf”, essentially the Krampus’s parading through town.
The Christmas market was essentially the finishing line for the “Krampuslauf” so after enjoying our Bratwurst we were surrounded by Krampus’s in all sizes. The age range of the Krampus’s was about 6 years old to 60 years old. Although still frightening it was interesting to see such young children dressed up as such a scary character. We tried to get over our fear by taking a picture with them and after seeing some of them not wearing their mask they weren’t as frightening. But still, if I’m walking around Passau next year on December 5th and I hear bells, I would probably speed walk the other direction.Written by Elena Osiander
We at the German-American Heritage Foundation would like to honor the members of the German Armed Forces who died in both of the world wars, the citizens who died in armed conflicts, and the victims of violent oppression this Sunday on Germany’s National Day of Mourning.
Sunday, November 19th is Volkstrauertag (People’s Day of Mourning). It is a public holiday that commemorates fallen soldiers as well as civilians during armed conflict and violent oppressions. This day of remembrance is always held two Sundays before the first day of Advent, as this time of the year is the end of the Liturgical Year and is typically a time to remember the dead and think about time and eternity.
However, Volkstrauertag was not always the day that it is now. From 1934 to 1945, the Nazi (National Socialist) Party changed it to Heldengedenktag (“Day of Commemoration of Heroes”) that sought more to commemorate war heroes and instead of being about remembering the dead. Upon the end of the Nazi Regime in 1945, this day was no longer widely celebrated. Then, in 1948, Volkstrauertag was observed in West Germany and the day of remembrance was moved to two weeks before Advent. The scope of the day was also broadened during this time period to include those who died from violence committed by an oppressive government.
This day is observed in Germany with an official memorial in the Bundestag that involves a speech given by the President and Chancellor as well as members of the Bundestag singing the National Anthem and “Der gute Kamerad” (The Good Comrade) which is a soldier’s song. Throughout Germany, there are also memorial services held in churches. National Day of Mourning is also classified as a “silent day”, which means that in some regions of the country, music and dance events are prohibited in order to respectfully honor the fallen.Written by Emily Beeland
Laterne, Laterne, Sonne, Mond und Sterne. Brenne auf mein Licht, Brenne auf mein Licht, aber nur meine liebe Laterne nicht.
Walking through the streets of a German town the evening of November 11th you might hear children singing this song as they carry hand crafted Paper Lanterns through the streets. The above text is the first verse of a Popular German Sankt Martin’s song.
Sankt Martin is celebrated in Germany every year the evening of November 11th. It is a fest dedicated to St. Martin of Tours and his modesty and altruism. The legend, known by all children in Germany, states that St. Martin saved a homeless man from freezing to death by giving him half of his cloak.
In the weeks leading up to Sankt Martin’s Day children make their own paper lanterns, either at school or at home. Then in the evening, a person dressed up as a Roman soldier riding on a horse, to signify St. Martin, leads a Lantern Procession through the town. As the children walk through the streets they carry their Lanterns and sing songs similar to the ones above. At the end of the procession Glühwein and sweet pastries are served.
Originally the holiday was followed by a fast that lasted until Christmas so many traditions associated with this holiday center around food. In addition to the Glühwein and sweet pastries many Germans still have a festive meal with roasted Duck or Goose as the main meal.Written by Elena Osiander
During the Cold War, Germany was split into two parts, the Bundesrepublik Deutschland (Federal Republic of Germany), also known as the BRD, and the Deutsche Demokratische Republik (German Democratic Republik), also known as the DDR. The communist DDR in eastern Germany was ruled by the Soviet Union while the BRD was a democratic nation. In addition, Berlin was split into East Berlin and West Berlin, essentially creating a “geographic loophole” used by thousands of East Germans to flee to the democratic west.
In order to keep this from happening, the East German Authorities built a wall separating the French, British and American Sectors of West Berlin from the Soviet Union Sector in East Germany. Overnight on August 13th, 1961 the East German Authorities built a wall spanning 96 miles and completely encircling West Berlin.
While the Berlin wall was in place, people continued on with their lives but what that daily life looked like differed depending what side of the wall they were on. Whereas West Germans were allowed to travel to East Germany with a visa, Eastern Germans were forbidden from leaving their side of the wall.
In addition, basic human rights such as freedom of speech were guaranteed in the BDR whereas in the DDR officials went as far as secretly placing microphones in people’s apartments to listen to their private conversations and make sure they weren’t planning anything against the East German Authorities. On the other hand, women in Eastern Germany had a more equal place in the workforce than the women in Western Germany. While women in Eastern Germany had had the opportunity to work factory jobs and were guaranteed a childcare spot for their children, women in Western Germany didn’t have many work opportunities and therefore stayed home and took the care of the children while the men were at work.
Since the life in the DDR was challenging, people living in Eastern Germany were looking for ways to escape to Western Germany. There were a lot of ways people tried to sneak their way into Western Germany: through an underground tunnel, in a hot air balloon or in western friends’ cars. This went on for a while, but 28 years after the wall went up the Cold War was starting to fade away in Germany, taking with it the Berlin Wall.
On November 9th, 1989, 28 years ago today Günter Schakowsky, a spokesman for the East Berlin Communist Party, announced at an International Press Conference that the travel restrictions for East Germany would be lifted. When asked when he replied “As of now, immediately!” even though it was originally planned for the following day in order to have a better oversight on exit visas, stamps, and passports. As one can imagine, this caused for a lot of celebration in Berlin. People from both sides started climbing over the wall, chiseling the wall in attempts to break it down and standing on or near the wall singing and cheering as the concrete Iron Curtain that had divided Germany for the past 30 years was being demolished.
About a year later on October 3rd, 1990 the five former German states that made up East Germany rejoined the Federal Republic of Germany. In addition, East and West Berlin reunited and became Germany’s third city-state. That day is known in German history as German Reunification Day and is celebrated on October 3rd every year.Written by Elena Osiander
Today, November 9th, marks the anniversary of Kristallnacht and is thus deemed Kristallnacht Remembrance Day. We, at the German-American Heritage Foundation, would like to remember and honor those who lost their lives on this night in 1938.
Kristallnacht translates to “The Night of Broken Glass” and marks when the SA military destroyed Jewish homes, synagogues, and businesses, thus leaving broken glass all over the street. Over 1,000 synagogues were burned and 7,000 Jewish businesses were destroyed and/or damaged.
The attacks that occurred on this night were viewed as retaliation for the assassination of Ernst vom Rath (a Nazi German diplomat) by Herschel Grynszpan (who was a German-born Polish Jew who lived in Paris). The assassination occurred on November 7th, 1938. Kristallnacht marked the beginning of Adolf Hitler’s “Final Solution”.Written by Emily Beeland