This is a portrayal of St. Nikolaus in
the Church of Guending in Germany.
It is the nicest one I could find.
He really looks like a well-meaning old gentleman
who distributes gifts and saves indigent maidens,
not to mention boys pickled in brine.
'Nikolaus' was one of those saints, like St. Martin, whose feast days we children awaited with great excitement, and, in the case of Nikolaus, a secret corner of fear. Nikolaus had a golden book in which he carefully noted all our good and bad deeds (and thoughts). Good children were rewarded with presents on Nikolaus Eve, but bad children were punished. Nikolaus had a special companion for the purpose, the servant Ruprecht; Ruprecht carried Nikolaus' sack that held the presents but he he also carried a switch, with which he beat the air occasionally, making us hold on to mother if the switch whistled by too close for comfort.
In the week before Nikolaus' Day father occasionally brought sweets or cookies home from work. "I've
passed Nikolaus in the street and he let me take these from his basket". Children believed every word adults uttered.
We were also busy writing wish lists for Nikolaus. Times were still very hard and abundant presents not taken for granted as they are today. Our requests were more modest than those of today's children. Wooden toys, a doll, sweets and biscuits, nuts and fruit and a picture book or two; anyway, you couldn't fit a lot into a wooden clog. I never wore them but I had a pair just for Nikolaus Day, because they were the appropriate receptacle for Nikolaus' gifts on the Lower Rhine.
I am glad to say that the custom of frightening children with the spectre of a vengeful Knecht Ruprecht ended during my childhood. It was usually my uncle who dressed up as Nikolaus and it didn't take us children long to work it out for ourselves. Knecht Ruprecht was said to be waiting outside by the sleigh, but the adults gave up the pretence of even that.
Historically, St Nicholas was a fourth-century bishop of Myra in Asia Minor. Legend says he was so pious even as a baby that he would only suckle once on feast days. He is said to have saved three maidens from prostitution by covertly throwing three golden balls for their dowries through their window by night; and to have miraculously revived three murdered boys pickled in a brine-tub. He is thus the special patron of children (as well as of pawnbrokers, who use his three golden balls as a sign).
The story of how St. Nikolaus
brought me gifts when I was a little girl is told in an