Today, December 6th, is Der Nikolaustag (St. Nicholas Day) and this means that all throughout German-speaking countries children woke up this morning to goodies from St. Nicholas left in their boots or stockings!
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.
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