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German Tradition: Saint Nikolaus Day

Interview Extraction:

Informant: “So Saint Nikolaus Day is on the 6th of December. And that is just Germany though, and I’m not sure about other European countries.  I know that for example, people in Spain do it on the 6th of January.  I don’t know why we choose that date, I’m sure it has some religious background, as everything in that time. But I don’t know why we celebrate it in December and not January.  Maybe it is to get people excited for Christmas. It’s kind of the beginning, like the very first Christmas event.  So when St. Nikolaus Day arrives, everybody is getting into the Christmas mood. And it somehow commences the Christmas time. So on the evening of the 5th of December, children have to clean their shoes, like their boots, and place them on the windowsill. But only very clean shoes are allowed to be on there.”

Interviewer: “And that is to show that the children are good children?”

Informant: “Well yeah, that is part of it. And you clean you shoes to ask St. Nikolaus to put small treats inside, overnight. So on the 5th of December, children place their shoes there and go to bed. And on the 6th in the morning, they wake up and check their boots to see if something has been put in there. Usually, if the children have behaved fine over the year, St. Nikolaus brings treats. But they are special treats… like walnuts, and also oranges, the small ones… clementines? And also some chocolate stuff.  And if you are bad, you would get sticks and stuff. I don’t know, I never had that. But they have a special name… a rod? And that would be to express that the child was misbehaving.  And St. Nikolaus Day is only for children.  Oh! And you can put spices on the oranges, like cinnamon or nutmeg? And it is arranged in small stars, like they put stars on the oranges.  And usually the boots are supposed to be red boots.”

Interviewer: “Why red?”

Informant: ” I have no idea. Probably the same reason… that the Christmas man… how is he called?”

Interviewer: “Santa Claus.”

Informant: “Santa Claus! Right. Because he is wearing a red coat.”

Analysis:

Saint Nikolaus Day is very similar to the tradition we have in America of hanging stockings over the fireplaces to get little gifts from Santa Claus.  Much like our stocking tradition, Saint Nikolaus Day puts a high emphasis on rewarding good children and punishing bad children.  In both traditions, good children receive gifts for their good behavior and bad children receive something that is symbolic of their naughty behavior such as coal in American tradition or a rod, which is used to spank bad children, in German tradition.  Saint Nikolaus is essentially the German version of Santa Claus.

In addition to what my informant told me, I also found some more interesting information on the legend in my research.  Saint Nikolaus, or Saint Nicholas as he is commonly called, was known to leave coins in the shoes of those who left them out for him.  Sometimes a Saint Nikolaus impersonator would visit children at their school or at their home and ask them if they had been good, helpful, and polite.  The impersonator would then check his golden book to for the child’s record to see if they were right.  This is much like our idea that Santa Claus is ‘making a list, checking it twice, and he’s gonna find out who’s naught and nice’.  During the interview I asked if she knew about the Krampus, which is a demon who accompanies Saint Nikolaus and takes away naughty children to eat them for Christmas dinner.  She said she had never heard of the Krampus before.  I thought this was odd because I was sure that the Krampus was a German legend, but I was only half right.  The Krampus is legend found in the Alpine regions of Europe such as Austria and has it’s roots in Germanic folklore, which is why I thought the Krampus was a part of German tradition.

In my research I was not able to determine why the 6th of December is the chosen date for Saint Nikolaus Day, but I agree with what my informant said about Saint Nikolaus Day marking the start of the Christmas season.  In America we seem to start Christmas season the day after Thanksgiving, because this is when people generally start shopping for Christmas gifts.  I do not know why Saint Nikolaus Day is done earlier than Americans version of the day, which is on Christmas Day when children open their stockings that they had set out the night before on December 24th.  However I agree with her in that Saint Nikolaus Day is a great way to start of the Christmas spirit and get into the gift giving mood.

My informant was born in 1992 Hamburg, Germany.  She studied at USC from 2010-2011 before moving to Brussels, Belgium to study international policy planning for her undergraduate degree.  She lives part time in Brussels, Belgium and part time in her hometown Hamburg, Germany.

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