Nikolaustag: Christmas comes early in Germany

November 10, 2023

In Germany, like most other countries, we celebrate Christmas Eve and Christmas Day on December 24 and 25.

But the festive season in Germany starts much earlier here.

We can’t wait for Christmas (and after the last year or so, who can blame us?!). So much so, that we need another festival at the beginning of December!

On December 6th we celebrate Nikolaustag (St. Nicholas Day). On this day children receive sweets and little presents from St. Nikolaus, a generous, kind and somewhat mysterious figure.

A little bit of history…

Well, the historical figure we associate with St. Nikolaus is the Bishop of Myra, but we don’t know that much about him. What we do know is that he was a priest, and that he inherited a comfortable sum of money from his parents, which he shared and used to help poor people, particularly children. What a guy! He later became the patron saint of seafarers and children. He died on December 6th which is why we celebrate him on this day.

That’s great… but what do you actually do on Nikolaustag and how do I get the sweets?!

First things first, you’ve got to be well-behaved and kind ALL YEAR to get any gifts or sweets from St. Nikolaus. He doesn’t reward bad behaviour! There are two other main traditions that will get you closer to a bag of gifts and sweets:

On the eve of December 5th, children clean and polish their shoes or boots and put them outside their front door in the hope that St. Nikolaus will pass by and fill them up with sweets and goodies.

Then, on December 6th, St. Nikolaus makes an appearance in many kindergartens. He comes dressed in red, with a long white beard, his Bishop’s hat, corsier and a golden book! The most important question he will ask the children is: Seid ihr denn auch brav gewesen? (Have you been good kids?) If the answer to this question is “yes”, you will be rewarded with goodies like sweets, clementines, apples and nuts.

When I was at school, throughout the whole of November we were worried that St. Nikolaus would find out if we were behaving badly. If we didn’t tell the truth, St Nikolaus would consult his golden book and we would be punished for lying by another figure, Knecht Ruprecht…

Knecht Ruprecht

Knecht Ruprecht accompanies St. Nikolaus dressed in black fur with a terrifying mask, loud chains and a staff! There are many stories about why he comes and why he is important, but these days he is often left out because he is quite frightening for small children.

St. Nikolaus sounds just like Santa Claus…

Well actually St. Nikolaus is sometimes confused with Santa Claus because of what he wears and how he looks. However, many people actually find this offensive! Here are their reasons:

Santa Claus:

  • Is an invented figure;
  • Is only there to increase sales;
  • Stands for consumerism.

St. Nikolaus:

  • Is the patron saint of seafarers and children;
  • Is the one who helps those in need;
  • Reminds good children – and adults – to do good deeds.

So, maybe this has inspired you to polish your shoes and put them outside your front door this year, in the hope that St. Nikolaus will pass by to fill them up! Or, if you happen to see a Santa-esque man before Christmas starts, at least now you know why!

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