Sunday, December 7, 2008

Sankt Nikolaus

December 6th is Saint Nicholas Day, which we celebrate at our house -- our household's Advent and Christmas tradition are a mish-mash of German, Swedish and American cultures, plus a few unique ones we've developed ourselves.

I'm often asked at the elementary school to share about German traditions, and once (Kindergarten, perhaps) one my daughter's classmates exclaimed how unfair it was for Liesl to get St. Nicholas presents when the rest did not!!!

My children set out their boots in the evening, and overnight St. Nicholas comes and fills them with goodies. When I was young, we sometimes had a visit from the Saint himself at the school or church, and he was accompanied by his servant Knecht Ruprecht. When I was six or seven, Knecht Ruprecht took one of my classmates, a real troublemaker, and stuck him in the sack (after it had been emptied of gifts, of course). St. Nicholas heaved the sack full of boy over his shoulder and carried him away --the boy returned a little later, a bit more subdued... That's the German version of "you better be good!"

So where did the tradition come from? It's basically the same origin as Christmas stockings in America. Here's a little history lesson: the real Nicholas was born about 250 years after Christ's Birth in modern-day Turkey, and became the Bishop of Myra. He came from a wealthy family, and had much compassion for the poor (he also is known as the Patron Saint of children, and sailors, but that's another story). The legend goes that there was a man who had fallen into poverty & was getting ready to sell his three daughters into prostitution or slavery -- Nicholas came by his house three nights in a row and threw enough gold coins thru the window to prevent that terrible fate for the girls -- some of the gold landed in the shoes, and thus was born the traditions of putting out the shoes.
(Note: as I googled about this topic, I came across a new movie (2008) at with Nicholas played by a rather handsome-looking actor, Matthew Mesler.)

Back to my childhood memories of Sankt Nikolas Tag, as we call it.
Just like I'm carrying this German tradition to Alaska, my parents carried it to South America, where we lived in Chile for six years. I was in grade school, oldest of 3 children, and we dutifully put our boots in front of the door before going to bed. I have to add that summer/winter are reversed seasons from Germany, and it was summer on Dec 6th, and quite warm (I never did get the point back then as to why he wore such a warm coat!). Sooo, there I was lying in bed on a balmy summer evening, and could not get to sleep with all the excitement of what St. Nick might be bringing, and decided to sneak out of bed to "check" the boots. To my delight they were filled with sweets, but to my horror, a LONG line of ants led to the boots!

Oh, what a dilemma -- do I tell my mom, and have her rescue what could be rescued of the chocolates, Lebkuchen and other goodies, or do I creep back to bed undetected and let "nature" take its course?!?... I chose to find my mother, even though that would certainly expose me as having "broken" the rule of waiting until the next morning. She was glad I told her, and I knew that night what I had suspected before then: namely that my parents were responsible for the goodies rather than a resurrected bishop...


honeypiehorse said...

Well, this is a much more authentic depiction of Nikolaus than mine. How sad for him to have to travel to warm climates in his big red suit!

Kitchen Sister said...

I think that leaving spicy chips and beer for Santa is what tipped me off to the true identity of these benevolent night-time characters. For a humorous (and thoroughly American) perspective on the tradition in Wales, check out David Sedaris' "Six to Eight Black Men"