St. Nikolaus Day comes at a very opportune time in the pre-Christmas ramp-up routine. By December 6, the season of advent has already started and most German children are eager to open a new window on their advent calendar each morning, as they have done since the first day of December, counting down to the most beloved day of the year: Christmas. But it’s difficult to wait that long when you are five years old, and lo and behold there happens to be another “intermediate” holiday that makes the wait a little easier: St. Nikolaus Day. The customs surrounding this celebration vary greatly in different parts of Germany, Austria and Switzerland. Originally, the custom of St. Nikolaus was based on Saint Nicholas of Myra, a 4th century bishop in what is now Turkey, who apparently was fond of giving gifts to many people in need. Over the centuries, many different traditions grew out of his story, and his special day was set for December 6 because he died on this day in 346. In Germany, many children set out their shoes in front of their door on the night before St. Nikolaus Day, expecting to find them filled with sweets and fruit in the morning. But in some areas, St. Nikolaus still goes from house to house on December 6 to see if children have been good or bad. He carries with him a big golden book in which each child’s deeds and misdeeds have been carefully recorded. The children often perform a song or a poem for St. Nikolaus, similar to the American tradition on Halloween. The are then rewarded with small gifts, nuts, chocolate, or fruit. But St. Nikolaus Day is not just a day of unbridled joy; it is often accompanied by a good measure of trepidation because the children who were “naughty” may get beaten with a bundle of twigs called a “Rute”, or if they were really bad, may get carried off in St. Nikolaus’ big bag to the Black Forest. At least, that’s what they are told. Sometimes, St. Nikolaus is accompanied by a helper: Knecht Ruprecht in Germany, Krampus in Austria, or Schmutzli in Switzerland. Krampus, in particular, is a scary-looking fellow, with a mask, horns, chains and bells, and smaller children may be quite terrified by his appearance. If St. Nikolaus travels with an animal, traditionally it is a donkey, since reindeer were unheard of in the German-speaking world.
Growing up in the northern part of Switzerland, I remember the mixture of anticipation and trepidation on St. Nikolaus Day quite well. Do I get goodies, do I get smacked, or–worst case scenario–do I get hauled off to the Black Forest? I also distinctly remember peering between the huge dark fir trees of the neighboring Black Forest every time we drove through the area, looking for all of the children who had been carried off to the Black Forest by St. Nikolaus. Of course, I never saw any of them, and the trepidation always vanished when I got my chocolate in return for a poem or a song.
Some short poems for St. Nikolaus Day
A short poem about Knecht Ruprecht (Author: Martin Boelitz, 1874-1918)
Draussen weht es bitterkalt,
wer kommt da durch den Winterwald?
Stipp – stapp, stipp – stapp und huckepack
– Knecht Ruprecht ist’s mit seinem Sack.
Was ist denn in dem Sack drin?
Äpfel, Mandeln und Rosin’ und schöne Zuckerrosen,
auch Pfeffernüss’ fürs gute Kind;
die andern, die nicht artig sind,
die klopft er auf die Hosen.
A traditional Saint Nicholas Day verse in Swiss-German.
Related worksheet for DaF (teaching German as a foreign language)
Nikolaus flashmob at the Frankfurt Main Train Station, organized by Deutsche Bahn.
A traditional item that children get on Saint Nicholas Day are small bread people called “Stutenkerle” in Germany and “Grittibänz” in Switzerland.
Webpage from the German Missions in the United States with a recipe in English for making Stutenkerle.