December 5th: what is Nikolaus and where is it celebrated?

In many countries across central and eastern Europe, December 5th is a day when children prepare for a special visitor – Saint Nikolaus.

Origins

The image of Saint Nikolaus is similar to that of Father Christmas, with robes and a long white beard, although the origins of the figure are different.

According to popular belief, Nikolaus lived in the 4th century in what is now Turkey and held the title of Bishop of Myra. There are lots of miracles are associated with him – he is said to have been a very kind man who gave anonymous gifts to the poor.

Customs

On the eve of Sankt Nikolaus’ Day, people clean their houses, and children polish special boots known as ‘Nikolaus-Stiefel’. They leave them outside along with letters for Nikolaus, as well as carrots or hay for his horse. The children also recite poems and sing songs for Nikolaus and make presents for him. The following morning the shoes and boots will be filled with sweets, nuts and fruit, though if the children haven’t been good, they may get the more disappointing offerings of potatoes, twigs or coal!

Although he has a different name in each country, Nikolaus is usually accompanied by a slightly ‘unsavoury’ helper! In Switzerland, he is known as Schmutzli, and is said to threaten to take naughty children away to the dark forest in his sack. In Germany, this helper is called Knecht Ruprecht, and in Holland he’s known as Zwarte Peter.

Recollections

Former Marketing Manager at Cactus, Tinka Carrick, recalls her experiences of Nikolaus whilst growing up in the city of Dortmund.

“I normally got slippers, so if I forgot to put my shoes out, I’d find slippers outside filled with sweets. My mum as a kid once put her horse riding boots out, as they were bigger than normal ones, and ended up with boots full of potatoes in punishment for her gluttony!”

She remembers being terrified of Knecht Ruprecht, and on one occasion being so scared that she refused to come out from behind the sofa for the whole evening in case she was put in his sack and taken away!

Interns at Cactus Anne Blank and Susann Maring also remember some families ‘hiring’ a Nikolaus to come to the house and surprise the children, and primary school events with someone dressed as Nikolaus too. The celebrations were generally family-orientated, and didn’t involve big parties or community events, but Nikolaus was certainly something that was greatly anticipated, and that put everyone in the mood for Christmas.

German courses in December

The whole month of December is a great time to take a German course in Germany, Austria or Switzerland. Not only can you experience the tradition of Nikolaus (and perhaps even get a boot full of sweets!) but you can also get in the mood for Christmas with the fabulous Christmas markets and all their festive glory. Visit the Cactus Language site for full course listings, to test your language level, or to make a course booking or enquiry.

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