It’s Christmas Eve!
But hang on. That doesn’t sound right, does it? It’s only the 5th December after all. But once upon a time, up until the reformation of the church in the 16th and 17th centuries, people exchanged gifts on St Nicholas Day, 6th December, instead of Christmas.
Nicholas has many names. In German-speaking countries he’s simply Sankt Nikolaus. In the Netherlands, he’s Sinterklaas. That eventually turned into Saint Nick and Santa Claus in English, and local variations of the name in many other languages.
Saint Nikolaus’ Beginnings
Saint Nikolaus of Myra was born in modern-day Demre, Turkey around the year 280 and was the son of rich parents. He opted for a life in the church and became a priest when he was 19. One of the first known stories about Nikolaus is that he saved three young women from a life of prostitution. The story goes that for three nights in a row, Nikolaus threw gold coins through their windows so they’d have enough money. Nikolaus eventually became a bishop and once he inherited his parents’ wealth, he gave all of it away to those in need.
A long-lasting tradition
Tonight, thousands of children will find the biggest boots they own and shine them. They will then leave those boots outside their door, hoping for St Nick to find them. In some regions, the boots are replaced by stockings. On the night of 5th of December Nicholas brings presents to all the children who have been good this year. Traditionally, he leaves apples, oranges, nuts, some coins and small presents.
Sankt Nikolaus and Knecht Ruprecht
In German-speaking regions, Sankt Nikolaus is often portrayed as a bishop, who is accompanied by someone called Knecht Ruprecht. While Nikolaus hands out his presents to the nice children, Knecht Ruprecht leaves pieces of coal for the children who have been naughty. The ones who really misbehaved might even be threatened with getting spanked with Ruprecht’s cane.
Seeing Nikolaus and Ruprecht together can have a lasting effect on young children. One of my earliest memories is a Nikolaus celebration with family friends when I was about 3 years old. One of the dads had dressed up us Nikolaus in his bishop’s robes and mitre, the other was dressed in rags with coal smeared all over him. I screamed. I was shaking so badly my knees kept knocking together. The evening didn’t quite go as planned because “Nikolaus” had to take me aside and they both removed their costumes so I could see it was my dad and one of his friends.
From then on we stuck to just leaving boots outside our door.
Written by Conny Kaufmann, IMLR PhD Candidate