Anna Hergert, Art & Design

Santa vs. St. Nikolaus

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December 6th might not mean much in North American customs… but when you are from Europe this is a very special day – it is St. Nikolaus Day. The day we remember the Bishop of Myra (a fourth century saint) who was the friend of the poor. Many legends surround St. Nikolaus. I will stick to the story that was shared with us when I was a child:  According to these “facts” St. Nikolaus regularly gathered food and gifts to distribute secretly among the poor at night during his lifetime. This tradition has carried on in various interpretations.

Growing up in Bavaria my family (parents, grandmother, my brother and little sister) would gather in the living room during the early evening of December 5th, St. Nikolaus Eve. Soon we would hear a loud knock on the door and a stately figure, clad in red with a bishop’s miter and staff entered. Behind him one or two little “Krampus”(small creatures dressed in dark clothes, their faces darkened with coal) carrying a small bundle of branches they would hit the floor with to make a frightful noise. This classic portrayal of good vs. evil still resonates with me today. The Krampus never touched us but just the suggestion of punishment had us remember our shortcomings for the following weeks… and for years afterwards.

St. Nikolaus always read from a large book to point out our shortcomings, and at the same time praised us for the things we did well. I especially remember my encounter with St. Nikolaus and his dark helper in Grade 1. The focus was that I was much too slow walking home from school (3 km one way) and that my parents were worried. He gently encouraged me to walk a little faster, punctuated by some growling noises from Krampus. Once all the children had received their “critiques” the large burlap sack was opened and each of us received a little bag filled with nuts, oranges and chocolates.

The next day I was home in record time… my parents didn’t expect me this soon. All I could think of was that if I didn’t hurry Krampus would come out from behind one of the trees that lined the riverbank I had to navigate, and scare me half to death… How long ago was this??? 48 years ago – yet it is still vivid in my mind as if it happened yesterday! Who knows what shapes us and makes into the adults we become? Punctuality continues to be important to me…

Once we “knew” that St. Nikolaus was a legend, he no longer visited in person. We would wake up on December 6th, finding a sock hung on the bedpost or a boot filled with special treats (nuts, oranges, chocolates – and marzipan!!! My favorite!).

Today we continue to celebrate December 6th in our family. If you have heard of the custom to celebrate your name ( a Catholic tradition) it is the day of honor for anyone whose name was derived from St. Nikolaus/St. Nicholas. Happy Nameday to Colin and Nicole, and anyone else out there whose name is rooted in St. Nicholas. Happy St. Nikolaus Day to all my European friends. Enjoy some marzipan – I know I will!

Thanks for indulging me in this seasonal memory. Today marks the first anniversary of this blog! You have until midnight to leave a comment, “like”, the entry, or sign on as a follower (is you have not done so already!). First thing tomorrow morning I will draw three lucky winners from all the names I have already placed into the draw basket. Best of luck!!!

This entry was published on December 6, 2012 at 10:29 am. It’s filed under History, Special event and tagged , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. Follow any comments here with the RSS feed for this post.

29 thoughts on “Santa vs. St. Nikolaus

  1. Katina on said:

    Some how I missed this post until now. My dad’s name was Nick, and my little grandson here is named after hi, Nicholas. I hope to remember this story to tell him next year. And yes as someone mentioned, you do tell stories quite well. Happy New Year. Still snowing here.

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  2. Liz Bayne on said:

    Thank you for sharing your story of StNicholas. My son’s family have moved to Belgium. St Nicholas left treats for my 2granddaughters, aged 5 and 8 a new experience for them

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  3. Love your St Nicholas collection! Great images!

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  4. Thank you for sharing the story of St. Nikolaus and especially the Krampus!

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  5. Nelly Kamphuis on said:

    Your story brings back memories! Growing up in the Netherlands, we had a similar tradition with St. Nicolaas or Sinterklaas (same saint) and his helper, Zwarte Piet (Black Peter), and it was the same date! It was fun but also scary! The furthest fellow to the right with his little helper in your collection is the one I remember.

    I love the ‘celebrate your name’ day and wonder if my name derives from St. Nicolaas…..hmmm, a little far fetched I think!

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    • Yes Nellie, I imagine you would have first-hand experiences from growing up in the Netherlands. I had the privilege one year while living in Calgary where our family was invited to a Dutch celebration of St. Nicholas – these memories are still vivid. What I loved in particular was when each person was presented with a verse by Sinterclass – highlighting one’s attributes and suggestion for improvement for the upcoming year… and then there was a pastry ring filled with… marzipan!
      About your name: I did some digging and found that it comes from the Greek Helena and Eleanor, or Latin Cornelia.

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  6. Kathleen on said:

    I have shared your story with my godson, Nicholas, who is far away at school. Your story warmed my heart on this cold December day. Thank you, Anna!

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  7. As we lived in Germany for 7 years, many of your memories brought back fondness fo the European way of celebrating Christmas. I also remember St Nicholas filling the shoes left outside the door with coal (or the ‘threat’ of that!)
    I have collected Santas from all over the world and created many St Nicholas’ (sometimes using old ‘cutter quilts’). My last years’ count was 570 of the jolly old fellows. So decorating our house begins in mid Nov and lasts until Ukrainian Xmas Jan 6. We are thinking of cutting back though since Charlies says he’s too old to be lugging that many boxes. So our girls and grandkids will inherit some of these Santas this year!

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    • Oh Karen… 570 Santas!!! I thought our family did well with just over 40! – all by the same artist…
      Make sure to capture the figurines with the camera before you present them to family members and split them up! I would love to see a couple of the images if you have time!

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  8. Kathy Logan de Chavez on said:

    Thank for sharing your story today, Anna. Although many people balk at the idea of “tradition”, there are so many life lessons hidden therein that influence us in perpetuity. Happy St. Nicholas Day! Missing you!!!

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  9. Wendy Klotz on said:

    I always remember this day as well as my elementary school in England was St Nicholas PNEU school. So we usually celebrated the occasion

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    • How wonderful when our memories return to elementary school days – those truly were “the good old days”, even if my political science professor in college told us that there was no such thing as “the good old days.” Elementary school days were so innocent and set the stage for life!

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  10. Love the story, really beautiful. And also the Santas. A wonderful growing up story, maybe you should really write it in longer form and see if you can get it published. A whole different art form!

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    • Oh Alice, I am not sure if writing is in my future – but then again: “Never say never…”
      Thanks for the suggestion to expand on the story – maybe I will take this as my incentive for next year’s St. Nicholas Day post!

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  11. Debbie Tyson on said:

    I grew up with the stories and tradition of St. Nikolaus. Sadly, my parents stopped celebrating this special day when I was a teenager, my younger sister barely remembers. And I too have never really celebrated this with my family, although I do think about this every December 6th. Perhaps it is time to reclaim this for my husband and teenage daughter. Thank you for sharing, you brought back some lovely childhood memories

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    • Yes, Debbie… it’s time to revive the old traditions. If we don’t pass them on to our children (no matter what age) special celebrations will soon be missing from our lives! Glad to have rekindled some childhood memories.

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  12. I was born in Germany and emigrated when I was just 3 years old. Despite my father insisting on adapting to our new country with respect to language, he nevertheless often told my sisters (who were born here in Canada) and me tales of the traditions of “back home” not the least of which was receiving a “lump of coal” from St. Nikolaus if our deeds warranted it. My parents have since passed away. Thank you for this travel back in time.

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    • Thanks for sharing your memories, Renate! I love to read about family traditions and realizing that they were not so different from mine! Yes, I didn’t mention the lump of coal – maybe because I never received one.

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  13. Anne Gott on said:

    Hello Anna

    Thanks for sharing your Christmas memories of St. Nikolaus. I love hearing about families’ traditions and I’m happy to hear that you still mark this special day. Anne

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  14. Janet Wilhelm on said:

    I think St Nicholas’s critique today would be very positive. You had the discipline to follow through on your intentions for the blog and the artlets. I look forward to you blog and the slide show three times a week. The posts are food for thought and much is internalized and has changed my focus. Thank you so much for all I have learned.

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    • Thank you, Janet!!! So nice to see you commenting today. Thank YOU for following the blog and sharing that you have found it a useful resource over the past months. A comment like yours’ is what keeps me going!

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  15. Diane Bowron on said:

    When I taught Grade three many years ago, Christmas Around the World was part of the Social Studies program, and we studied Christmas in the Netherlands. It was fun and interesting for the kids to learn about the many ways Christmas is celebrated.

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    • St. Nicholas celebration in the Netherlands and in northern Germany are quite different from the customs I grew up with in the Bavarian Alps. In Salzburg, Austria which is very close to my hometown St. Nikolaus and the Krampus roam the streets… sometimes I wonder how much children were traumatized by their (often rough and gruff) behavior. In contrast, St. Nikolaus in the Netherlands is a distinguished bishop who rides into town on his white horse blessing the children and distributing gifts.
      Many books have been written about the varied customs across the world.
      Thanks for weighing in, Diane. Teachers in the school system are wonderful with imparting knowledge about holiday customs from all cultures.

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