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.

Nikolaus or Santa for Deutsche Bahn

Even the Deutsche Bahn confuses Nikolaus (St. Nicholas, a religious figure, prominent on 6 Dec) with the American Santa.

They called this a Nikolaus Überraschungsaktion 2012 (St. Nicholas surprise event), and yes, I was surprised to see 400 Santas singing instead of 400 Saint Nicholas.

What both Nikolaus and Santa have in common is their probable age, beard, and red outfit. That’s where it ends.

St. Nicholas brings small presents on 6 Dec and Santa may bring bigger ones on 25 Dec.

To add a bit more to this confusion, most Germans have the Christkind deliver the presents on Christmas Eve, 24 December.

Nice try, Deutsche Bahn.

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More about St. Nicholas on wikipedia.

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.


Nikolaus or Santa in Germany

About a week ago, I spotted all these Nikoläuse (plural for Nikolaus) in our local supermarket.

Either the Nikolaus’s  early appearance had lapsed into oblivion over the years, or sales are getting more aggressive. It’s probably a combination of both.

Nikolaus at the German supermarket

These Stiefelgeschenke (stocking fillers) are meant for the morning of December 6, when Nikolaus comes around, and rewards the good children by stuffing goodies into their boots left outside the home.

Even though Nikolaus might resemble Santa, they are two different traditions . Nikolaus was a Greek bishop (4th century) and Santa, well, he is from the Northpole.

I do miss the 60s for our innocence. We children did not expect anything and there was nothing whatsoever, resembling Nikolaus (Dec 6) or Christkind (Dec 24), in any village grocery store. Our parents left us behind with an aunt, when they did their Christmas shopping in the nearby town.

I have to admit I had my first taste of Lebkuchen and Zimtsterne (traditional Christmas cookies). The other day though, I refused a cup of hot Glühwein (mulled wine), as I don’t want to have it too early, because I might get tired of it even before the Christmarket season begins.
At Allthingsgerman, you can read more on Der Niklaustag.


Santa and Christkind in Germany

There seems to be a common misconception about Germany’s gift-giver on Christmas eve among my newly arrived foreign friends, acquaintances, and students.

It is not only Santa who brings the gifts in Germany! Additionally (and sometimes understandably so), some confuse the German Nikolaus, who brings small presents on 6 Dec, with Santa. When I prompt the question of whether they thought Santa would come twice, hence 6 and 24 December, most have a puzzled look on their face. Then it is time to clear up the difference between the Weihnachtsmann and St. Nikolaus.

A bit of history knowledge wouldn’t hurt either as the Weihnachtsmann seems to belong mostly to the former Prussia and Christkind to Bavaria, along with a couple of neighboring states.

Here in central and southwest/southern Germany, we well as in parts of Austria, the Czech Republic, Italy, Liechtenstein, Switzerland, Slovakia,  and Hungary, it is the Christkind bearing presents for the children on Christmas Eve.

Traditionally, German families keep the tree in hiding until the afternoon of Christmas eve. The children are kept busy while the tree is secretly pulled into the home and decorated. In our childhood, seeing the tree for the first time would happen on Christmas Eve. And yes, we did have starlit eyes! I remember, along with my four siblings, trying to steal a look through the locked door to get a glimpse of the Christkind. The door would be locked so my parents could decorate the tree and arrange the presents. By the time we got called in to the living room, after asking continuously Mama, war das Christkind schon da?, we would be faced with an icy cold and bright lights. Before being let in, the window had to stay open for a certain time, as the Christkind can enter the home only that way. Well, the cold in the living room made it more believable.

Adults will approach the children after Christmas Eve, the day of our gift-giving, with: Was hat das Christkind Dir denn gebracht? (What did the Christkind get you?)

On 24 Dec, all retail (besides gas stations, fast food restaurants, etc.) close for the day in the early afternoon to let workers go home early to prepare for one of the holiest day of the year.

I like Santa, but they can keep him employed in northern and eastern Germany. Just this past weekend, a campaign to save the Christkind from Santa Claus took place in Graz, Austria. Some feel Santa’s popularity is getting out of hand here on the European continent.

Coca-Cola Santa by Steiff

"Coca-Cola" Santa by Steiff

This Santa was given to me as a birthday present in 1999. Steiff designed this 35 cm tall Santa Doll, as it was first illustrated by Haddon H. Sundblom for the advertising campaign of 1931. The “Coca-Cola” Santa carries in its bag, among other gifts, a small snow-white little Steiff Teddy bear made of mohair. Limited edition of this Santa: 10,000 pieces worldwide, 1999.

The following year I bought three more of the same Santa, but each with a missing sack and holding a shiny package instead of the Coke bottle. Sad to say, but these Santas were forced to let go of a few things. Those I got at a steal of a price because of the missing items as well as the lack of the original boxes.

For our family, it will be the Christkind delivering the presents. Nine more days until I open the living room window. It would be hard for Santa to come through the chimney anyway, as most German homes do not have a fire place.

Sorry, no photo of the Christkind, as nobody has ever seen it. If you do, please feel free to submit a photo!

Enjoy the season!

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