A man with a long white beard, a bishop’s miter, and a thick red cape comes knocking on the door at some houses every December 6. Other children wake to find their shoes have been filled with treats. Who is this international man of mystery?
“Ho, ho, ho, have you all been good?” The old man with a long white beard, a bishop’s miter, and a thick red cape stands with his finger raised before the excited children, his eyes moving from one beaming face to the next. “Yes!” they all shout in unison, impatiently eyeing the heavy brown sack that Saint Nicholas has carried in from the cold night over his shoulder. What could it possibly hold? Toys, books, or even candy? “Well, that’s good to hear!” Nicholas declares and opens his big golden book, from which he reads the names of the children and presents each of them with a small gift from his sack. They politely thank him, offer homemade cookies to their peculiar guest, and recite small poems. Finally, they accompany him to the door, where he trots off with a jolly “ho, ho, ho,” disappearing into the dark on his way to the next house.
Such a visit is not at all unusual in Germany in the pre-Christmas season, for every year on December 6 Saint Nicholas is remembered and celebrated in this way. Like many traditions handed down over the centuries, it is unclear what is true and what has been added over time to the legend of Saint Nicholas. What is known, however, is that the person we now celebrate as the holy Bishop Nicholas is purely fictitious and has evolved from two historical figures: The first is Nicholas Bishop of Myra, who lived in the forth century in what is now Lycia, Turkey. The other is Nicholas Abbey of Sion and later Bishop of Pinara. The figure who later became known to us as the powerful Saint Nicholas Bishop of Myra evolved from them and the good deeds they did to help the poor, infirm, and oppressed.
From that figure have grown numerous legends describing Nicholas’s altruistic and sometimes miraculous good deeds. In the most well-known story about him, Nicholas peacefully stopped the plundering and rioting in the city and saved the lives of three innocent men who had been condemned to death. In one of the more mysterious legends, he rushed to the aid of sailors on a ship during a raging storm and calmed the sea, thus enabling them to reach the harbor safely. The tradition of gift-giving is believed to be based on the story in which he generously gave the entire inheritance left him by his wealthy parents to the poor and protected them from the cold and hunger. These and many more legends about this saint have been handed down from generation to generation and are meant to teach children how to live unselfish lives.
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German Missions- St. Nicholas
In Germany, Nikolaus is usually celebrated on a small scale. Many children put a boot called Nikolaus-Stiefel outside the front door on the night of December 5 to December 6. St. Nicholas fills the boot with gifts and sweets, and at the same time checks up on the children to see if they were good, polite and helpful the last year. If they were not, they will have a tree branch (rute) in their boots instead. Sometimes a disguised Nikolaus also visits the children at school or in their homes and asks them if they have been good (sometimes ostensibly checking his golden book for their record), handing out presents on a per-behaviour basis. This has become more lenient in recent decades.
But for many children, Nikolaus also elicited fear, as he was often accompanied by Knecht Ruprecht (Servant Ruprecht), who would threaten to beat, or sometimes actually beat the children for misbehaviour as using this myth to 'bring up cheek children' for a better, good behaviour. Any kind of punishment isn't really following and just an antic legend. Knecht Ruprecht furthermore was equipped with deerlegs. In Switzerland, where he is called Schmutzli, he would threaten to put bad children in a sack and take them back to the dark forest. In other accounts he would throw the sack into the river, drowning the naughty children. These traditions were implemented more rigidly in Catholic countries and regions such as Austria or Bavaria.
In highly Catholic regions, the local priest was informed by the parents about their children's behaviour and would then personally visit the homes in the traditional Christian garment and threaten to beat them with a rod. In parts of Austria, Krampusse, who local tradition says are Nikolaus's helpers (in reality, typically children of poor families), roamed the streets during the festival. They wore masks and dragged chains behind them. These Krampusläufe (Krampus runs) still exist.
So does that mean I get a stocking and a shoe? :)