The Legend of Saint Nicholas
Enlarge image The southern German city of Sankt Nikolaus offers training for those new to taking on the character. (© picture-alliance/ dpa) “Ho, ho, ho, have you all been good?” The old man with a long white beard, a bishop’s miter, and a thick red cape stands with his finger raised before the excited children, his eyes moving from one beaming face to the next. “Yes!” they all shout in unison, impatiently eyeing the heavy brown sack that Saint Nicholas has carried in from the cold night over his shoulder. What could it possibly hold? Toys, books, or even candy? “Well, that’s good to hear!” Nicholas declares and opens his big golden book, from which he reads the names of the children and presents each of them with a small gift from his sack. They politely thank him, offer homemade cookies to their peculiar guest, and recite small poems. Finally, they accompany him to the door, where he trots off with a jolly “ho, ho, ho,” disappearing into the dark on his way to the next house.
Such a visit is not at all unusual in Germany in the pre-Christmas season, for every year on December 6 Saint Nicholas is remembered and celebrated in this way. Like many traditions handed down over the centuries, it is unclear what is true and what has been added over time to the legend of Saint Nicholas.
Enlarge image A St Nicholas Altarpiece by Christoph Bocksdorfer from around 1525. (© dpa / picture alliance) What is known, however, is that the person we now celebrate as the holy Bishop Nicholas is purely fictitious and has evolved from two historical figures: The first is Nicholas Bishop of Myra, who lived in the forth century in what is now Lycia, Turkey. The other is Nicholas Abbey of Sion and later Bishop of Pinara. The figure who later became known to us as the powerful Saint Nicholas Bishop of Myra evolved from them and the good deeds they did to help the poor, infirm, and oppressed.
From that figure have grown numerous legends describing Nicholas’s altruistic and sometimes miraculous good deeds. In the most well-known story about him, Nicholas peacefully stopped the plundering and rioting in the city and saved the lives of three innocent men who had been condemned to death. In one of the more mysterious legends, he rushed to the aid of sailors on a ship during a raging storm and calmed the sea, thus enabling them to reach the harbor safely. The tradition of gift-giving is believed to be based on the story in which he generously gave the entire inheritance left him by his wealthy parents to the poor and protected them from the cold and hunger. These and many more legends about this saint have been handed down from generation to generation and are meant to teach children how to live unselfish lives.
Less of a role model is Saint Nicholas’s companion Knecht Ruprecht, who embodies evil and takes a switch stick to the children who have been bad or threatens to stuff them into the sack. This negative figure was used especially in the past as a means to teach and admonish children so that they would always be good. Nowadays, the image of Saint Nicholas is not supposed to evoke fear anymore. Instead, it should bring children joy, fill them with the Christmas spirit, and inspire them to do good deeds.
Shoes at the door
Enlarge image These children rushed to find the treats Nicholas left overnight in their boots. (© picture alliance / dpa Themendie) Sadly, the beautiful tradition of Saint Nicholas visits is gradually waning. In many German homes, cleaned and polished shoes are merely placed in front of the door and are quietly filled with little surprises by Saint Nicholas in the night. Some children hang over the fireplace stockings which are then filled with delicious sweets in the morning. In the olden days, it was common to surprise the children with oranges, nuts, apples, and pastries; today, it is more common to give small toys, a chocolate Nicholas, or other sweets.
On the morning of December 6, children wake up early and rush down the stairs in their pajamas to get their shoes. And if they are very quiet, they may be able to hear through the falling snow in the distance a familiar “ho, ho, ho.”