Saturday, 5 December 2009

Children Be Good, Nikolaus Is On His Way!

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!


  1. Such a nice post Friko. What a contrast to the crude and shallow affair the festive season has become.

  2. What a sweet story of a more innocent time.
    When our children were at home we also had the tradition of filling their shoes with books and chocolate from Sinterklaas on this evening. The children have grown up, but The Great Dane and I haven't, so we'll be creeping around to Lillypad's apartment this evening after a dinner party, to hang a bag of goodies from her door handle.

  3. St Nick comes on Christmas eve here at midnihgt usually a relative or neighbour in disguise and leaves coal for bad children in thier shoes or clogs . He is not like the English Father Christmas all Ho ho ho and terrifies the French children who often hide under the table when they hear his knock! Our kids found this very odd! When He came to school to see the chidlren and delivery presents our two little ones were the only ones who did not cry or run away!!

  4. friko what a gorgeous posting with a story of christmas as it sits in my heart if not in my experience!!! steven

  5. Dear Friko, thank you for making it possible to see this day with 'other eyes'. As lessons will last 'only' until 7.30 in the evening, there will be time to celebrate with Stefan, who is in love with 'Oh du fröhliche' and able to sing already the first two words - sometimes until he falls asleep, which is quiet funny to hear, even late.
    A wonderful Sunday for you.

  6. What delightful post, Friko.

    Aloha, Friend!

    Comfort Spiral

  7. Happy St Nicholas Day to you. A lovely blog Friko.

  8. That took me right back - although we kept Christmas Day as the time for Father Christmas's present-giving, we heard tales of St Nicholas and someone called Black Peter, who had a sack that really naughty children would be carried off in. All rather thrilling, and a little alarming - like you, we never had totally clear consciences. On Christmas Eve the candles on the tree would be lit, and we children processed solemnly in to stand around it, until my mother's nervousness about fire overcame her, and the little ceremony came to a brisk end. Delightful!

  9. I agree with Martin. What a lovely picture of a child waiting innocently and gratefully for small presents. I've been watching the ads on telly for the electronic presents which ONLY cost £169 etc etc. Incredible.

  10. Long may the spirit reign in Blogland, of whichever version of St Nic you adhere to! Loved your heartwarming story here, Friko.

  11. Martin H - thank you, Martin, I hate to go on about 'the good old times', they certainly weren't that, but people were more modest than we are now.

    Pondside - Lucky Lillypad!

    her at home - I don't like the idea of connecting presents with somebody's idea of being good; but that is how St Nikolaus works

    steven - thank you for your comment; the old stories still matter for us.

    robert - thank you, robert, give stefan a hug from me and I hope der Nikolaus kommt auch zu ihm.

    Cloudia - thanks and aloha to you over there in warmer and sunnier climes.

    Twiglet - thank you Twiglet, same to you

    rachel - we too lit the candles on the tree on Christmas Eve, but we children had to stand in front of the tree and recite a poem or sing a song, embarrassing rather than delightful!

    Fran Hill - I refuse to buy them for my grandchildren, mean-spirited old bag that I am!

    Jinksy - thanks Jinksy, it's not just heartwarming though is it? sacks to put kids in? birches for beating them with?

  12. Friko: And you didn't have to report (or fudge) on your behaviour during the year!! Sounds like you were well loved as a child. And yet, the tradition carries this threat. . . not the best way to treat a little one.

    Funny, how in North America we have merged Santa Claus with St. Nicolaus. Mind you, we did not celebrate Christmas in my family so I am not an expert on any of this, but it is my impression that we have not kept them separate here.

    I enjoy hearing about the traditions of your childhood.

  13. Another wonderful story from you, Friko! You have a gift for taking your readers away to another time and place, shining with the rich, golden patina of memory.

  14. What a wonderful story! I have never heard any of that. I am going to have to share this with my daughter!

  15. It's so nice to learn of the customs in other countries. Of course, Santa Claus comes here Christmas Eve and the presents are under the tree Christmas morning. One year my middle sister, who was a real brat, got a switch in her stocking and her tears were loud and long. We had talked my mom into putting it there to teach her a lesson. My mom, being wiser, did not want to do it. But it was we who learned the lesson. There are proper times for punishment and proper ways, but it is cruel to do that to a child. She dud get her presents immediately after the tears, but it really put a damper on Christmas morning.

  16. I agree with Darlene, that there is a time and a place for discipline and the middle of an expected celebration is probably not the best. But I loved your story Friko! Traditions are so different from country to country depending on interpretations of myths and stories. Thank you for sharing your own experiences of St. Nicholas. You must have felt very special, when he visited twice! =D

  17. Bonnie - I agree, some of the old customs can be a little off - I don't believe in beating children at any time;

    Deborah - thank you, praise indeed. blogging helps to bring long-buried memories to the fore.

    Shattered - without the threats, I hope. Nikolaus is a benevolent man, but he still has his servant with him to do the unpleasant deed.

    Darlene - that must have been quite traumatic.I expect you felt guilty for a long time afterwards.

    Linda - thank you Linda, those were difficult times and I'll never know how my parents made it possible to find the means to buy the gifts.


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