Nikolaus in Germany and the American Santa

Today, 6 December, is Nikolaustag. This is when children leave their boots outside the front door, and Nikolaus fills them with treats. As traditions vary throughout Germany, in northern Bavaria, where I grew up, we put our boots outside on the evening of 6 December.

In other areas (and other family traditions), boots are put outside on the evening of 5 December, with Nikolaus stopping by throughout the night to fill up the boots. Forget the reindeer, his transportation is unknown.

Nikolaus versus Santa

Santa versus Nikolaus

Santa was the invention of a German immigrant to the U.S.A. The cartoonist, Thomas Nast, was commissioned to design a comic figure for an American magazine. From there, Coca Cola picked up the same image and started using it in its commercials. That’s how Santa was born.

Saint Nikolaus himself was a bishop from Myra (Turkey), dating back to the 4th century. He is the patron saint of children, hence the gift-giving to the children, which dates back to the Middle Ages.

Letters to German Santa

We Germans must be a confused Volk when it comes to Christmas-related traditions. I get asked the same questions by foreigners every year, because this is one German issue which lacks Ordnung.

Not only do we celebrate St. Nikolaus on 6 December, but also have the Weihnachtsmann (Santa)  bring presents to German children on Christmas Eve. Then, to top it off, most Germans I know have the Christkind (Christ child) in the form of an angel deliver the presents on Christmas Eve. This is due to regional differences.

In my hometown of Northern Bavaria, it was always the Christkind bringing presents. I have heard northern Germans often have the Weihnachtsmann do the same job. Here in Hesse (central Germany), one can overhear adults asking children after Christmas, “Was hat das Christkind dir denn gebracht?” (What did Christkind bring you?).

Well, we private citizens are not the only one confused.

Yesterday’s paper, Mix am Mittwoch, carried the article Post an den Nikolaus. Here I quote the text:

Kinder können auch in diesem Jahr wieder Briefe an den Nikolaus schreiben. Selbst Briefe, die unfrankiert im Postkasten laden, werden beantwortet. In speziellen Weihnachts-Postämtern arbeiten Ehrenamtliche in den Adventswochen und lesen und beantworten jeden Brief.

Transl: Again this year, children may send their letters to Nikolaus. Each letter, including the ones without postage, will be answered. There are special Christmas post offices, where volunteers read and answer every letter in the weeks of advent.

Nice gesture, I thought. But then I double-checked the paper’s issue date, 7. Dec. Then I had to reflect for two seconds to realize we have never sent letters to Nikolaus. We have sent ours to the Christkind!

My next thought was this could be another marketing ploy by stationary companies and the post-office combined, encouraging children to write two letters each Christmas season. But no, this announcement was made after Nikolaus day.

I am glad to report the German post-office has gone private in the 90s. Otherwise, I’d have to suggest to move the date for the great gift giving to Nikolaus Tag. If a public institution suggested this as the true date, such as in Miracle on 34th Street, then we would believe it, too.


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