• Germany's news in English
 
The Lowdown
Celebrating Nikolaus before Christmas
Photo: DPA

Celebrating Nikolaus before Christmas

Published: 06 Dec 2013 08:19 GMT+01:00

Is Nikolaus the same as Santa Claus?

Though they have similar outfits, Nikolaus is not to be confused with Santa Claus, who Germans call the Weihnachtsmann, or Father Christmas. They are two different people. In fact, many religious families try to focus more on Nikolaus earlier in December to ensure that Christmas is actually about Jesus’ birth, and not presents from an Americanized and commercialized Santa.

Who is Nikolaus, then?

Each year on December 6, Germans remember the death of Nicholas of Myra (now the Anatolia region of modern Turkey), who died on that day in 346. He was a Greek Christian bishop known for miracles and giving gifts secretly, and is now the patron saint of little children, sailors, merchants and students. Known as Nicholas the Wonderworker for his miracles, he is also identified with Santa Claus. Beliefs and traditions about Nikolaus were probably combined with German mythology, particularly regarding stories about the bearded pagan god Odin, who also had a beard and a bag to capture naughty children.

Why do children set their shoes out on the night of December 5th? Doesn’t he have any?

Of course Nikolaus has shoes. The custom began because the historical St. Nicholas had a reputation for leaving secret gifts, such as coins, in people’s shoes overnight. Kids traditionally put out their boots, though shoes or stockings will suffice for those without boots.

And the boots have to be polished first?

Definitely. Dirty boots are unacceptable. Children polish their boots to show they’ve been good. They usually place just one boot outside their door so they don’t appear too greedy, though.

One polished boot: Check! What happens next?

According to the legend, Nikolaus comes in the middle of the night on a donkey or a horse and leaves little treats – like coins, chocolate, oranges and toys - for good children.

What do naughty children get?

This depends on different family traditions. Sometimes Nikolaus only leaves a switch [of wood] in the boot, ostensibly for spankings, to show that the child doesn’t deserve a treat. In other families, a man disguised as St. Nicholas will visit the family or the child’s school alone or with his with his sinister-looking alter ego Knecht Ruprecht to question the children about their behaviour.

Crikey. What does he do if the kids admit to being naughty?

Depending on how strict the children’s parents are, St. Nicholas will give them a verbal warning or even a pretend spanking with a rod.

Hey, he’s a Saint isn’t he? Saints can’t spank little kids.

Well, the rod is more an invention of parents who wanted to teach their children a lesson over the years.

That spoils the fun a bit, doesn’t it?

Certainly! Children were often quite frightened of being questioned about their behaviour because they’ve been told that St. Nicholas will hurt them with his rod or even put them in a sack and take them away.

Though the custom is in decline, in more Catholic regions, parents inform a local priest of naughty behaviour. The priest then pays a personal visit wearing the traditional Christian garb to threaten the little rugrats with a beating.

What does his outfit look like?

He is usually pictured with a long white beard, a bishop's mitre and a red cloak, sometimes with a sack over his shoulder and a rod in his hand.

Does Nikolaus come again on Christmas Eve then?

No. Santa Claus, or the Weihnachtsmann, usually comes to German homes – often in person – on the afternoon of Christmas Eve.

Frohen Nikolaus!

Click here for The Local's visual guide to Christmas markets.

Click here for The Local's guide to Germany's best Christmas markets.

Related links:

For more stories about Germany, join us on Facebook and Twitter

Kerstin von Glowacki (news@thelocal.de)

Your comments about this article

Today's headlines
Wolf spotted in North Rhine-Westphalia
File photo: DPA

Wolf spotted in North Rhine-Westphalia

Camera traps have spotted a wolf for the second time in a month in North Rhine-Westphalia, the state environment ministry reported on Friday. READ  

German ranchers murdered in Paraguay
Paraguayan police on patrol in an area known to contain EPP rebels. File photo: DPA

German ranchers murdered in Paraguay

The Foreign Ministry in Berlin confirmed that two Germans living in Paraguay were kidnapped and killed earlier this week. READ  

AfD braces for busy conference weekend
"Vote AfD!" reads the flyover message. Photo: DPA

AfD braces for busy conference weekend

As leaders of the Germany's anti-Euro upstart party Alternative for Germany (AfD) prepare for its party conference this weekend, the potential for chaos is rising. READ  

Sudden dose of winter causes traffic chaos
Snow in Oberharz. Photo: DPA

Sudden dose of winter causes traffic chaos

UPDATE: Two people were rescued from avalanches as a blast of winter has taken Germany by surprise, while snow and ice accounted for several traffic accidents across the country on Friday. READ  

BND collects 220 million phone records a day
Photo: DPA

BND collects 220 million phone records a day

Germany's foreign intelligence agency, the Bundesnachrichtendienst (BND) collects 220 million pieces of information about foreign phone calls and SMS every day, Zeit Online reported on Friday. READ  

U-turn on minimum wage for foreign drivers
Photo: DPA

U-turn on minimum wage for foreign drivers

Germany temporarily hit the brakes Friday on applying its new minimum wage to foreign truck drivers transiting the country in a move welcomed by Poland, which vigorously opposed the system. READ  

Crises make Germany EU foreign policy leader
Foreign Minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier. Photo: DPA

Crises make Germany EU foreign policy leader

Foreign policy think-tank the European Council on Foreign Relations (ECFR) gave Germany top marks in its annual check-up of EU member states released on Thursday. READ  

Prost! Beer sales hop up for first gain in 8 years
Photo: DPA

Prost! Beer sales hop up for first gain in 8 years

New figures released Friday by federal statistics office Destatis are numbers breweries can drink to, as German beer consumption saw its first year-on-year rise since 2006. READ  

Germany has thousands of uni spots open
Photo: DPA

Germany has thousands of uni spots open

New research published by Spiegel on Friday shows that there are thousands of university placesa unoccupied across the country, while certain hot spots cope with too much demand. READ  

Borussia coach admits to 'downward spiral'
Borussia Dortmund coach Jürgen Klopp at a press conference. Photo: DPA

Borussia coach admits to 'downward spiral'

Borussia Dortmund coach Jürgen Klopp admits feeling the pressure as his side resume their fight to stay in Germany's top flight on Saturday at fellow Champions League side Bayer Leverkusen. READ  

RECEIVE OUR NEWSLETTER AND ALERTS
Business & Money
FATCA: 'The age of financial privacy is over'
Gallery
The best regional foods TTIP opponents want to protect
Photo: DPA
Features
The rise and spread of Pegida
Photo: Shutterstock
Culture
This cosplayer did not think his plan through
National
Europe in statistics - from Spain to Sweden
Photo: DPA
Politics
The Local's report from Pegida's largest ever demonstration.
Sponsored Article
Top-notch tech boosts bilingual schools
National
Six stories that will rock Germany this year
Photo: DPA
National
Terror alert at a new high. Should you be worried?
Dresden skyline and river by night. Photo: DPA
Politics
What does Dresden have against Muslims?
Photo: DPA
National
What were your favourite news stories of 2014?
Gallery
Top 12 German idioms
National
Why has The Local got a new logo?
Photo: DPA
National
This German was abducted and tortured by the CIA
Culture
10 top tips for partying in Germany
Photo: DPA
Technology
What does the Chancellor see as the future of the internet?
Photo: DPA
Berlin
The Local's series on 25 years since the fall of the Berlin Wall
Photo: DPA
Business & Money
JobTalk: All you need to know about working in Germany
National
Share news tips with The Local Germany
Latest news from The Local in Austria

More news from Austria at thelocal.at

Latest news from The Local in Switzerland

More news from Switzerland at thelocal.ch

Latest news from The Local in Denmark

More news from Denmark at thelocal.dk

Latest news from The Local in Spain

More news from Spain at thelocal.es

Latest news from The Local in France

More news from France at thelocal.fr

Latest news from The Local in Italy

More news from Italy at thelocal.it

Latest news from The Local in Norway

More news from Norway at thelocal.no

Latest news from The Local in Sweden

More news from Sweden at thelocal.se

3,462
jobs available
Toytown Germany
Germany's English-speaking crowd