Ethnic traditions

Saint Nicholas Day – December 6

Wer ist Sankt Nikolaus? – Who is Saint Nicholas?
For a long time in Austria and some regions of Germany, particularly in Bavaria, St. Nicholas was the main character in the Christmas celebration. But he was not Santa Claus, and he arrived earlier – on the 6th of December. His usual, less friendly escort went by different names in different places: “Belsnickle,” “Niglo,” “Pelznickel,” and others. Santa Claus or Father Christmas is a more recent tradition. Since the Germans (and the Dutch) brought many of their customs to America directly or indirectly, we need to look first at Europe in order to understand the American and worldwide Christmas celebration of today.

Santa Claus (St. Nick), as drawn by Thomas Nast for Harper’s Weekly in 1881. But who was the real Saint Nicholas? See below. PHOTO: Wikimedia Commons

The Historic, Real St. Nicholas
Across the German-speaking region of Europe there are many kinds of Santa Clauses with many different names. Despite their many names, they are all basically the same mythic character. But few of them have anything to do with the real Saint Nicholas (Sankt Nikolaus or der Heilige Nikolaus), who was probably born around 245 C.E. in the port city of Patara in what we now call Turkey. Very little solid historical evidence exists for the man who later became the Bishop of Myra and the patron saint of children, sailors, students, teachers, and merchants. He is credited with several miracles and his feast day is December 6, which is the main reason he is connected with Christmas. In Austria, parts of Germany, and Switzerland, der Heilige Nikolaus (or Pelznickel) brings his gifts for children on Nikolaustag, Dec. 6, not Dec. 25. Nowadays, St. Nicholas Day (der Nikolaustag) on Dec. 6 is a preliminary round for Christmas.

Nicholas of Myra is believed to be the historical source of St. Nicholas, the patron saint of children, sailors, students, teachers, and merchants. PHOTO: Wikimedia Commons

Although Austria is mostly Catholic, Germany is almost evenly divided between Protestants and Catholics (along with some minority religions). So in Germany there are both Catholic (katholisch) and Protestant (evangelisch) Christmas customs. When Martin Luther, the great Protestant Reformer, came along, he wanted to get rid of the Catholic elements of Christmas. To replace Sankt Nikolaus (Protestants don’t emphasize saints!), Luther introduced der Heilige Christ (later called das Christkindl), an angel-like Christ Child, to bring Christmas gifts and reduce the importance of Saint Nicholas. Later this Christkindl figure would be replaced by der Weihnachtsmann (Father Christmas) in Protestant regions and even cross the Atlantic, where Christkindl mutated into the English term “Kris Kringle.” Ironically, in the present day the originally Protestant Christkindl is now predominant in the Catholic regions of Germany and Switzerland, as well as in Austria.

Besides the Catholic and Protestant aspects, Germany is a country of many regions and regional dialects, making the question of who Santa Claus is even more complicated. There are in fact so many German names (and customs) for Nikolaus and his escorts that we created a special “Nikolaus Glossary” just for all the names (temporarily offline). On top of that, there are both religious and secular German Christmas customs. (That American Santa Claus has really gotten around!) However, below we’ll summarize some of the main German Christmas characters and customs.

In order to answer the question “Who is the German Santa Claus?” you need to look at different dates and the various regions of German-speaking Europe. First, there are several names used for the German Father Christmas or Santa Claus. Four main names (WeihnachtsmannNickelKlausNiglo) are spread out from the north to the south, from west to east. But don’t confuse Christmas and Christmas Eve (Santa) with Nicholas Day.

The Nikolaus-Begleiter (Nicholas Companions)
The date when Nikolaus/Nicholas makes his appearance is December 6, known in German as Niklolaustag (Nicholas Day). Dressed like a bishop in a white garment, Nicholas usually arrives with a companion. His companion goes by many names, depending on the region. Nicholas’ companions are usually ominous looking, rough, dark characters. In some cases (Krampus, for instance) the figure frightens children both with its monstrous appearance and its threatening behavior. This is no jolly, smiling elf. This is more like a devil.

A man dressed as Hans Trapp in 1953 in Wintzenheim, Alsace, a German-speaking region of France. Hans Trapp is just one name for the frightening figure who accompanies St. Nicholas on December 6. PHOTO: Wikimedia Commons

Who are these nasty guys? There are many local and regional names: AschenmannBartlBoozenickelHans TrappKlaubaufKrampusBelsnickel/PelznickelRuhklasKnecht Ruprecht, and the Swiss/Alemannic Schmutzli. These names can even vary within a region from locality to locality, but these Nicholas companions are rarely kind and good. Mostly they are evil – going so far as to frighten little children and, in some places, even whip them with switches. They reflect the darkness of the characters and stories in the original, non-sanitized Grimm Brothers fairy tales based on ancient Germanic folklore. (Learn more about these Nicholas companions below.)

Krampus “Morzger Pass” Salzburg 2008

The Germanic character Pelznickel was also imported to Pennsylvania in the US as “Belsnickel” in the 1800s. According to author Stephen Nissenbaum, by the turn of the 20th century, Pennsylvania’s Belsnickel and the tradition of “belsnickeling” (dressing up as the creature, delivering treats, soliciting coins and promoting general mayhem) was dying out, soon to be replaced by a much more benevolent Santa Claus.

Now let’s look at the key dates of the German Christmas celebration.

Nikolaustag – 6. Dezember
On the night of December 5 (in some places, the evening of Dec. 6), in small communities in Austria and the Catholic regions of Germany, a man dressed as der Heilige Nikolaus (St. Nicholas, who resembles a bishop and carries a staff) goes from house to house to bring small gifts to the children. Accompanying him are several ragged looking, devil-like Krampusse, who mildly or nor so mildly scare the children. Although Krampus/Knecht Ruprecht carries eine Rute (a switch), he usually only teases the children with it, while St. Nicholas hands out small gifts. In some regions, there are other names for both Nikolaus and Krampus (Knecht Ruprecht in northern Germany). As early as 1555, St. Nicholas brought gifts on Dec. 6, the only “Christmas” gift-giving time during the Middle Ages, and his companion, Knecht Ruprecht or Krampus, was a more ominous figure. In Alpine Europe Krampus is still a scary, devil-like figure. The Krampuslauf custom found in Austria and Bavaria also happens around December 5 or 6, but it also can take place at various times during November or December, depending on the community.

Saint Nicholas and Krampus, 1900s

Nikolaus and his escorts don’t always make a personal appearance. In some places today, children still leave their shoes by the window or the door on the night of Dec. 5. They awaken the next day (Dec. 6) to discover small gifts and goodies stuffed into the shoes, left by St. Nicholas. This is similar to the American Santa Claus custom, although the dates are different. Also similar to American custom, the children may leave a wish list for Nikolaus to pass on to the Weihnachtsmann (Father Christmas) or the Christkind for Christmas.

Hans Trapp – père Fouettard, Wikipedia

St. Nick’s Escorts and Where Their Names Come From
As we said before, each region or locality throughout the German-speaking parts of Europe has its own Christmas customs, Weihnachtsmänner (Santas), and Begleiter (escorts). Here we’ll review just a sampling of the various regional variations, most of them pagan and Germanic in origin.

Knecht Ruprecht is a term widely used in many parts of Germany. (In Austria and Bavaria he is known as Krampus.) Also called rauer Percht and many other names, Knecht Ruprecht is the anti-Santa escort, who punishes bad children. Nowadays he is often a more kind, less menancing character, but in parts of Austria and Bavaria, Krampus remains a rather nasty figure.

Ruprecht’s origins are definitely Germanic. The Nordic god Odin (Germanic Wotan) was also known as “Hruod Percht” (“Ruhmreicher Percht”) from which Ruprecht got his name. Wotan, aka Percht, ruled over battles, fate, fertility and the winds. When Christianity came to Germany, St. Nicholas was introduced, but he was accompanied by the Germanic Knecht Ruprecht. Today both can be seen at parties and festivities around December 6.

Belsnickel / Pelznickel is the fur-clad Santa of the Palatinate (Pfalz, in western Germany along the Rhine), Saarland, and the Odenwald region of Baden-Württemberg. The German-American Thomas Nast (1840-1902) was born in Landau in der Pfalz (not the Bavarian Landau). It is said that he borrowed at least a couple of features from the Palatine Pelznickel he knew as a child in creating the image of the American Santa Claus – the fur trim and boots. In some North American German communities Pelznickel became “Belsnickle.” The Odenwald Pelznickel is a bedraggled character who wears a long coat, boots, and a big floppy hat. He carries a sack full of apples and nuts that he gives to the children. In various areas of the Odenwald, Pelznickel also goes by the names of BenznickelStrohnickel, and Storrnickel.

The literal translation of Pelznickel is “fur-Nicholas” (“Nickel” being a diminutive of Nicholas). But in reality the name Pelznickel is derived from the old West Central Germanic verb pelzen, to “beat” or “thrash.”

Der Weihnachtsmann is the name for Santa Claus or Father Christmas in most of Germany today. The term used to be confined mostly to the northern and mostly Protestant areas of Germany, but has spread across the country in recent years. Around Christmastime in Berlin, Hamburg, or Frankfurt, you’ll see Weihnachtsmänner on the street or at parties in their red and white costumes, looking a lot like an American Santa Claus. You can even rent a Weihnachtsmann in most larger German cities.

The term “Weihnachtsmann” is a very generic German term for Father Christmas, St. Nicholas, or Santa Claus. The German Weihnachtsmann is a fairly recent Christmas tradition having little if any religious or folkloric background. In fact, the secular Weihnachtsmann only dates back to around the mid-19th century. As early as 1835, Heinrich Hoffmann von Fallersleben wrote the words to “Morgen kommt der Weihnachtsmann” — still a popular German Christmas carol. The first image depicting a bearded Weihnachtsmann in a hooded, fur mantle was a woodcut (Holzschnitt) by the Austrian painter Moritz von Schwind (1804-1871). Von Schwind’s first 1825 drawing was entitled “Herr Winter.” A second woodcut series in 1847 bore the title “Weihnachtsmann” and even showed him carrying a Christmas tree, but still had little resemblance to the modern Weihnachtsmann. Over the years, the Weihnachtsmann became a rough mixture of St. Nicholas and Knecht Ruprecht. A 1932 survey found that German children were split about evenly along regional lines between believing in either the Weihnachtsmann or the Christkind. But today a similar survey would show the Weihnachtsmann winning out in almost all of Germany – except for most Catholic areas. Source

Image of the visit of Saints Nicholas and Krampus to an Austrian family. Illustration from 1896. Wikipedia

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