Tonight, the night of the 5th December, is the night when children in central and eastern Europe expect the arrival of St Nikolaus, bringing his sack of toys and gifts for all children who have been particularly good during the preceding twelve months.
Saint Nicholas is the common name for Agios (Saint) Nikolaos , the Bishop of Myra, who lived in the fourth century AD in Myra, Lycia, now part of modern Turkey.
Historically, there is very little more known of him, except that he was generally seen as a charitable man with a social conscience.
Legends however, abound. Nicolaos saves his home town from famine by miraculously providing grain; he saves three maidens from shame and ignominy by secretly leaving three pieces of gold in their hovel, while they sleep, thereby providing them with a dowry to marry. He saves sailors from a watery grave and leads a young man imprisoned in a far land back to his homeland. His most famous miracle is that he resurrects and reassembles three drunken students, who have been murdered, chopped up and pickled in a vat by an evil innkeeper.
No wonder Nicolaos became the patron saint of, among others, children, students, sailors, travelling merchants and apothecaries.
St Nicholas is celebrated in many central and eastern European countries; in Germany, on his feast day, which falls on December 6th, he is a bringer of gifts for children.
These gifts and sweets didn’t come free, you had to have been a very good child during the previous year. St. Nikolaus often brought his servant, Ruprecht, with him, who carried not only the sack with presents on his bent back but also held a switch, a bundle of birch twigs in his hand, which would be used if it could be shown that you had been naughty.
When male members of the family, disguised with beard and appropriate costume, i.e., a magnificent coat and boots for St Nikolaus and dark rags for the Servant Ruprecht, roughly knocked on the door and demanded entry, many a child’s heart beat a furious tattoo, fearfully remembering a small lie, a naughty deed or a hidden shame. When Nikolaus accused little Eva of spitting in anger, all she could think of to save her own neck, was telling on her cousin Markus. “He does it too, he did it first”, she squealed. Nikolaus appeared to have been overcome with emotion at that, as evidenced by his heaving shoulders; she got away with it.
Before the times allowed us to travel to branches of the family living in other villages and celebrate the day with my cousins, Saint Nikolaus didn’t come to me in person. “He has to visit too many other children to make time to come here, he may not come at all”, Mum said. Obviously, I was very disappointed but also just a little relieved; my conscience was never totally clear. As the evening progressed, the atmosphere in the kitchen where I was sitting with my back to the large, old-fashioned range, with a picture or colouring book, grew quiet, with a slight tingle of tension in the air. I kept my head down firmly over my book, all the time listening for sounds from outside.
The noise, when it came, did not come from outside, but from right behind me. With a great clatter a wooden toy, a tin of hard boiled sweets and toffees, apples and gingerbread biscuits came flying into the room. Saint Nikolaus had thrown all these goodies down the chimney for me and they had survived coming down into the kitchen via the big black stove pipe and the fire in the range. It was a wonder Mum hadn’t been hit because she was standing right there, in the way. On the other hand, it was good that she was standing there because she said she had heard Saint Nikolaus shout down the chimney that he might come again, later in the night, on his way back home and if he had anything left in his sack he’d put it in my boot, if I left it out for him.
Which I did. And Saint Nikolaus was as good as his word: in the morning I found that he had left me a book and a teddy bear and more cookies and sweets and apples than could fit into my boot!