• Germany's news in English
 
app_header_v3

Celebrating Nikolaus before Christmas

Kerstin von Glowacki · 6 Dec 2013, 08:19

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.

Story continues below…

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 news from Germany, join us on Facebook and Twitter.

Kerstin von Glowacki (news@thelocal.de)

Your comments about this article

Today's headlines
Naked swimmer hospitalized after angler hooks his penis
File photo: DPA

When a man swimming naked in a Bavarian lake felt a strange pain in his nether regions, he looked up to see a fisherman on the shore. "Don’t pull!" he shouted.

Study finds rival Rhineland beers 'actually taste the same'
Left: Altbier. Right: Kölsch. Or can you even tell? Photos: DPA.

Cologne and Düsseldorf have a long established rivalry, not least over who has the better home brew. So the results of a new study might be more than they can swallow.

Eastern Europe pushes Germany for joint EU army
Angela Merkel (l), Beata Szydlo and Victor Orban. Photo: DPA

Eastern EU countries on Friday pushed for the bloc to create a joint army as they met with Germany for talks on sketching Europe's post-Brexit future.

Merkel’s party mate wants to get rid of all Karl Marx streets
Karl Marx and one of the roadways in Berlin named for him. Photos: Wikimedia Commons, Nicor

Hundreds of streets are named after the founder of communism, but this conservative politician wants to give Marx the boot.

State elections
6 reasons why Berlin is now known as 'the failed city'
Photo: DPA

With state elections around the corner, The Local looks at the poor side of Germany's "poor but sexy" capital city.

Upstarts RB Leipzig plan to go right to top of Bundesliga
RB Leipzig players celebrate scoring against Dynamo Dresden. Photo: DPA

RB Leipzig make their Bundesliga debut on Sunday, but the East German outfit, sponsored by energy drinks manufacturer Red Bull, are already far from popular in Germany's top-flight.

Poland criticizes Germany’s 'self-serving' foreign policy
Witold Waszczykowski. Photo: DPA

The Polish foreign minister has said that Germany all too often follows its own interests at the expense of its partners, as Chancellor Angela Merkel prepares to visit Warsaw.

Vast majority of Germans in favour of burqa ban: poll
Women wearing niqab veils in Saudi Arabia. Photo: DPA.

A survey found that the vast majority of respondents were in favour of Germany passing a ban on the full-body veil sometimes worn by Muslim women.

Czech police detain driver for harassing Merkel's motorcade
Angela Merkel. File photo: DPA

Czech police arrested a man on Thursday for attempting to drive into the motorcade of visiting German Chancellor Angela Merkel in Prague, they said.

Teacher convicted for holding kids back after class
Photo: DPA

A music teacher from North Rhine-Westphalia (NRW) has been found guilty of "holding people against their will" after he made some naughty stay kids back after class.

Sponsored Article
Why you should attend an international job fair
Gallery
Germany's 17 Olympic gold medals in pictures
Sponsored Article
Why expats choose international health insurance
Culture
7 American habits that make Germans very, very uncomfortable
Rhineland
Story of a fugitive cow who outwitted police for weeks before capture
Sponsored Article
Why you should attend an international job fair
Culture
Eleven famous Germans with surnames that'll make your sides split
Sponsored Article
Life in Jordan: 'Undiscovered treasure'
Lifestyle
The best ways to get a visa as an American in Germany
14 facts you never knew about the Brandenburg Gate
Society
Ten times Germans proved they really, really love beer
Sponsored Article
Why Jordan is the ‘Different’ East
Lifestyle
What's on in Germany: events for August 2016
Sponsored Article
Five things Americans should know about voting abroad
National
Six things you need to know when moving to Germany
Travel
These 10 little-known German towns are a must see
Sponsored Article
Jordan Pass: your ticket to the experience of a lifetime
International
German scientists prove birds can sleep while flying
Sponsored Article
Jordan: where history meets adventure
Technology
London v. Berlin: Which is better for startups?
Lifestyle
13 mortifying mistakes German learners always make
Sponsored Article
6 reasons expats use TransferWise to send money
Travel
Enter if you dare: Berlin's best abandoned haunts
Sponsored Article
Why you should attend an international job fair
Lifestyle
10 rookie errors all Brits make when they arrive in Germany
Sponsored Article
Five things Americans should know about voting abroad
National
How to get German citizenship (or just stay forever)
Sponsored Article
Jordan: where history meets adventure
Technology
Brexit will turn Berlin into 'Europe’s startup capital'
Sponsored Article
6 reasons expats use TransferWise to send money
Travel
Six soothing day trips to escape the bustle of Berlin
International
'Germany needs to make UK come to its senses'
Features
Six odd things Germans do in the summer
Features
How two gay dads cut through German red tape to start a family
8,546
jobs available
Toytown Germany
Germany's English-speaking crowd