Monday, 6 December 2010

The Feast Day of St Nicholas - Sixth Window

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


  1. Our children were totally confpunded when at Christmas thier first year in france all the children burst into tears and hid under the tables when Pere Noel arrived! Here they fill clogs or shoes and are given apice of coal if they are bad and it is usually still an uncle or kind neighbour who dresses up and brins teh gifts!

  2. An history of such a character told nicely. Our American tradition Christmas was not so historic. Mostly about the birth of baby Jesus and getting lots of gifts.

  3. Very interesting about the behavior inforcer Knecht Ruprecht. Nice to hear he is enjoying retirement.
    Interesting how each countries beliefs are similar but just a bit different.

  4. I knew we got St. Nicholas from the German tradition but I didn't know much about him. Thanks for filling me in.

  5. When we lived near the Dutch border we'd go over to see Sankt Niklaus arriving by barge on the Maas, complete with Black Peter. It was very exciting for the children and for the child in all of us!

  6. Thanks for the interesting history lesson. When we lived in Germany for a few years, I remember one year my mom and dad decided to revive the St. Nikolaus for me (I was the only one still young enough to believe in such things). They kept reminding me of the consequences of misbehavior, and it's no wonder that I decided to forgo the St. Nikolaus tradition in favor of good old Santa after that year. At least with him, I didn't have to worry about switches or lumps of coal.

  7. Oh that lump of coal was a threat I suffered in Ireland too!
    We all knew of 'someone' who actually got one. A cousin of a cousin.

  8. Details about St. Nicholas that I didn't know, for sure. How interesting. I had no idea that he saved errant women with the gold balls or that it was related to the ones on pawn shops, nor had I heard of the pickled boys!

    The American Santa Claus is such a conglomeration of practices from other cultures. Coal was often mentioned in relationship to him and children's behaviors in my house. Perhaps this came from German heritage, passed down for generations.

    Interesting post!

  9. St. Nikolaus does look like a kindly old gentleman in that portrayal. You've packed many interesting snippets of information into this post, Friko, thank you.

    I hadn't been aware of that connection between the saint and pawnbrokers.

  10. nice insights into the traditions...i am afraid our wants have expanded well beyond the shoes or stockings these days...not sure that it is all that good...

  11. Ah, Ruprecht. One of the many ways the church controlled us. :)

  12. Pickled in brine. Yuck!! Those old tales always have a weird twist. I like your story better.

  13. Insightful and fun, your Advent lessons
    march on, and your inspiration for the
    rest of us to more fully enjoy and
    understand the season. We, here in
    the Madison Ave. drenched regions,
    only grew up with the Hallmark Santa,
    the Coca Cola behemoth, the Disney
    charmer. Thanks for the tidbits, the
    sharing, and the explication of where
    the tradition for pawnbrokers to
    covet three golden balls.

  14. I've always liked that kindly saint! Much nicer than some of the rather grim ones.

    We were always told that there would be switches and lumps of coal for the bad children -- but as we were always good, never actually saw it happen.

  15. Ruprecht... I have been trying to recall his name. When I saw your Christmas calander, I started thinking of tales I've heard. One of my favorite childhood memories is of a friend of my mother, German decent. Loved the stories she shared. Took us to see Dicken's 'Oliver Twist' at the theatre one year. One of my favorite Christmas' from childhood.

  16. lovely post.

    link your poems to potluck poetry today, have fun.

  17. Friko, the prior comments show how many folks before me loved this Advent post. Of course, I also loved it, as it reminded me so some traditions I'd heard of, and forgotten.

    In my 1940's-50's childhood, I definitely was aware of Santa keeping a list, and of the need to be very good. Coal in the stocking was something to be avoided by best behavior. The reward usually turned out to be a tangering in that stocking toe...and some other little treats and a candy cane or two.

    I do love this time of the year, and the call of childhood memories that many of us hear.


  18. It is so interesting to read about all these different traditions. I think they are different by country but also by families, depending on what they believe. I had never heard of St Nikolaus until I came to the US, but then in my family we never heard much about any kind of saints, plus most of my father’s friends where either Jewish or Muslim. When I was little, which was just after WW2, I was told that Papa Noël would come during the night. That usually gave me nightmares. The next morning I would have one or two gifts under the tree and some sweet in my shoes – which I had placed by the small electric heater in the dining room.

  19. I am thoroughly enjoying your Advent windows as you open them Friko. Thank you.

  20. Living in an almost entirely Germanic community in the 1940's when I was a little girl, we celebrated St. Nicholas Eve. But I was never threatened with a lump of coal. St. Nicholas knocked on the door and rang sleigh bells. I begged my mother to go and look after the ringing stopped. Yes, St. Nicholas (my dad) was gone and only a bag of various candies (my favorite was something we called "angelfood") was there.

    My Aunt Helen, however, did see St. Nicholas - a friend of her grandfather who dressed up to play the part. She was so frightened she fainted.

    We are a cowardly family, I guess.

  21. As I cycled to work yesterday morning , a little girl was marching to school , wearing a pink , glittery princess dress and pushing a brand new pink dollies' pram .
    Sinterklaas had come up trumps !

  22. Ah, but sometimes I think Knecht Ruprecht might be appreciated by adults if he made a come-back! My children put their shoes by the door on the night of the 5th, a custom we adopted when living in Germany. Our first December, 15 years ago, no treats were delivered but I did bring home a baby brother from the hospital on 6. Dezember!


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