Monday, 6 December 2010

Happy Saint Nicolaus Day!

It's the 6th of December and therefore we celebrate St Nicolaus Day here in Germany. I have many friends from all over the world, so you might not be familiar with the myth of St Nicolaus and the traditions that are connected with it over here.
Therefore I thought it would be nice to tell you a little about the history of St Nicolaus and how it is celebrated.

St. Nicolaus was a bishop in Myra, which lies about 100km southwest of today's Antalya in Turkey. There are many myths around him and the good deeds he did during his livetime so that the Catholic church announced him a saint.

One very popular myth is the story of a poor man, who couldn't wed his 3 daughters because he didn't have any money for the dowry. The only chance he saw was in turning his daughters into prostitutes to make sure his daughters can earn money and support themselves. Nicolaus heard about it and snuck to the house within 3 nights and threw a lump of gold through the window. Now reports vary here a little, some say he just threw it through the window, others say he threw them through the window and into the socks that were hanging at the fireplace to dry.
In the third night the father caught him and thanked him, because now he was able to wed his daughters and give them a propper dowry. In pictures Nicolaus is often shown with three golden balls, or, as in the picture below, with 3 apples, representing the lumps of gold.

Because of this story children place a boot outside of their bedroom the night before, which will be filled with oranges, nuts, and clementines in the morning of December 6th. Depending on how far this tradition is developed (and how healthy your family is living) you will also find gingerbread and chocolate in there.
Now you might say "Ewww it will all taste like smelly feet!" But be ashured that the holiday industry is good at producing little boots just for St Nicolaus.

And while you've been reading this, you might have remembered the stockings that people hang over their fireplaces in America. This tradition also derived from the story of St Nicolaus.

St Nicolaus is also known for caring for children. There are various stories about how he rescued children that were in great danger or were kidnapped. Therefore Nicolaus Day is a day for children.
In one of these stories he gave some money to three brothers and after a year they had to return and report to him what they used the money for. This might sound familiar to you as well, because today the question about which child was good, which one was bad is raised every year.
Of course all the good children get their boots filled with all the good stuff. But what about the bad children? Therefore St Nicolaus has his little helper Knecht Ruprecht. He was the one responsible for whipping the bad children with a birch and fill their boots with coal. Since beating children is forbidden in Germany, the story is often reduced to the coals.

Depending on how Knecht Ruprecht is interpreted he is either presented as a dirty looking version of St Nicolaus or as a demonic creature.

I went to a religious kindergarden and a religious primary school. Every December 6th our priest dressed up in a traditional bishop's robe and visited the children in kindergarden/primary school. Of course he had a Knecht Ruprecht with him as well. He told us tales of good deeds and then asked us whether we've been good this year. Usually we had to learn small poems and present them to him, or at least those kids who weren't too shy did (like me :D ). Then he passed out clementines and Walnuts.

The bishop's robe you see here is the "cheap" version of it. The one our priest wore was embroided with gold stitches and always looked very impressive.

The most popular poem is about Knecht Ruprecht and I don't know anyone in my age who has never heard of this poem before. Most of them can at least say the first stanza. Unfortunately I couldn't find a translation, therefore I hope you speak at least a little German so that you can understand it:

- Knecht Ruprecht -

von Theodor Storm

Von draußen, vom Walde komm ich her;
ich muss euch sagen, es weihnachtet sehr!
Überall auf den Tannenspitzen
sah ich goldene Lichtlein blitzen,
und droben aus dem Himmelstor
sah mit großen Augen das Christkind hervor.

Und wie ich strolch' durch des finstern Tann,
da rief's mich mit heller Stimme an:
"Knecht Ruprecht", rief es, "alter Gesell´,
heb deine Beine und spute dich schnell!
Die Kerzen fangen zu brennen an,
das Himmelstor ist aufgetan,
alt und jung sollen nun
von der Jagd des Lebens einmal ruhn,
und morgen flieg ich hinab zur Erden;
denn es soll wieder Weihnachten werden!"
Ich sprach: "Oh lieber Herre Christ,
meine Reise fast zu Ende ist;
ich soll nur noch in diese Stadt,
wo's eitel gute Kinder hat."

"Hast denn das Säcklein auch bei dir?"
Ich sprach: "Das Säcklein, das ist hier;
denn Äpfel, Nuß und Mandelkern
essen fromme Kinder gern."

"Hast denn die Rute auch bei dir?"
Ich sprach: "Die Rute, die ist hier;
doch für die Kinder nur, die schlechten,
die trifft sie auf den Teil den rechten!"

Christkindlein sprach: "So ist es recht;
so geh mit Gott, mein treuer Knecht!"
Von draußen, vom Walde komm ich her;
ich muss euch sagen, es weihnachtet sehr!
Nun sprecht, wie ich's hier innen find!
sind's gute Kind, sind's böse Kind?

Now you may say: Hey, wait a minute, this St Nicolaus has a lot in common with our Santa Claus! And you're right. The story of Santa Claus has its origins in St Nicolaus. But when you ask me if I have ever believed in "Santa Claus", the fat guy in his sleigh with reindeers, I have to tell you no, I never believed in him. I love the story, though, it is a very nice children's tale and I love Christmas movies like "Miracle on 34th Street".
But for me Christmas was always the birthday of Jesus Christ. I went to Sunday School at church since I was 3 or so. And every year we performed a play on Christmas Eve in church about the birth of Jesus. So this was always the Christmas story I believed in.
We got our presents from the Christkind (Christ Child), which is kind of funny, because the Christkind is supposed to be Jesus, as we're celebrating his birthday. And because he always shared things with others, he also shares his presents with us to celebrate his birthday together with us.
However, the Christkind is always presented as a female angel with long curly blond hair. :D

For me, the Christkind always looked more like a 3-year-old child. I mean, how do you expect an angel as tall as the woman on the picture to fly through the open window, leave the presents, ring a golden bell to let you know it was here, and then leave quickly enough so that the children will never see it fly away? You have to be small and fast for that!

My parents used to lock up the living room the whole day of the 24th and while my mother was at church with my sister and me to watch the play, my father placed all the presents under the tree. When we came home we had dinner and at the end my father would sneak into the living room, ring our small dining bell and snuck out through the side door into the corridor, while we stormed into the living room through the dining room doors.

So, this was my little report about how we celebrate St Nicolaus Day and Christmas. Share your holiday stories by commenting on this blog post!

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