December 6th is Nikolaustag in Germany – the annual celebration of the life of St Nikolaus, who died on this day some time between AD 345 and 351.
But who exactly is St Nikolaus, why is he so important… and what makes him different from Santa Claus?
Here's the story.
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Was Nikolaus a real person?
Sort of. The figure known as St Nikolaus today is actually largely based on Bishop Nikolaus of Myra.
This Nikolaus was born around AD 280-286, in Patara (now part of Turkey). He became Bishop of Myra (also Turkey) at quite a young age, and at one point was actually exiled and imprisoned because of his Christian faith.
Nikolaus von Myra (Aleksa Petrov, 1294). Photo: Wikimedia Commons
How is he celebrated today?
Each year on the evening of December 5th, German children polish one of their boots and leave it out before they go to sleep.
They then drift off in the hope that St Nikolaus will visit during the night. If he does, the children awake on Nikolaustag to find their boot filled with sweets, treats and presents from the man himself.
Ok, the shoes might not literally be outside, but you get the idea. Photo: DPA
But what does Nikolaus of Myra have to do with children getting presents?
Nicholas of Myra was loved for his generosity, and support of those in need. His wealthy parents died when he was young, and Nikolaus used his inheritance to help the poor, sick and suffering.
Now the patron saint of little children, sailors and merchants, Nikolaus was known for giving gifts secretly.
In one famous story, he left bags of gold in the home of three young women whose father couldn't afford their dowries.
And children leave out boots because…?
According to the story, the girls had left their stockings and shoes in front of the fire to dry – and when Nikolaus tossed the bags of gold through an open window, this was where they landed.
Nikolaus became known as a gift-giver, and today's children still put out shoes in the hope that he will ride by on his donkey or horse and fill the shoe with sweets, fruit, toys and money.
For every child?
Nah, only the good ones. For the rest… well, it differs between families.
In some cases, St Nikolaus leaves a switch of wood for parents to spank naughty children with – while in other areas, “Nikolaus” visits homes and schools with his alter-ego Knecht Ruprecht to question kids about their behaviour.
An image of Knecht Ruprecht with the Christkind (Christ child) dating from the 19th century. Image: Wikimedia Commons
Admit to being naughty and you're in for a few stern words – or even a pretend spanking.
Is Nikolaus a bit like Santa, then?
Ah. See, there are many Germans who would actually get quite angry with you for confusing these two.
Santa is known as the “Weihnachtsmann” in Germany, and visits children on December 24th.
Saint Nik on his way to a Kindergarten in Baden-Wurttemburg to check up on the kids. Photo: DPA
Through celebrating Nikolaustag in early December, many Christian families hope to keep the focus of Christmas itself on Jesus's birth – rather than a commercialised and Americanised Santa.
But what's the difference between Santa and Nikolaus?
Well, apart from the fact that they are both depicted as old men with white beards and red coats… they haven't got a lot in common.
It was Dutch emigrants who brought the tradition of “Sinterklaas” to America in the 17th Century – and Sinterklaas returned to Europe as Santa.
Santa himself has nothing to do with the Christian faith, says Katholisch.de, the internet portal of Germany's Catholic church.
Nikolaus, on the other hand, is one of the most important figures in early Christian history.
“It's not just Nikolaus's many good deeds that separate him from Santa,” Katholisch.de notes.
“From the church's point of view, a Weihnachtmann based on consumerism has nothing to do with the selfless Bishop of Myra.”
Nikolaus in Hanover in 2007. Photo: DPA
By Hannah Butler