Who and What is Nikolaus?

Who and What is Nikolaus?

Each year on the evening of December 5, children across Germany get out the brushes and the polish and give their shoes a nice shine. Why? Because it’s Nikolaustag! December 6, is the feast day of St. Nicholas, which has us wondering — who and what is Nikolaus? And how is he different from Santa Claus? — or the Weihnachtsmann as he’s known here in Germany. 

Nikolaustag is a beloved Christmastime tradition in Germany. And on the night of December 5, children across the country put one freshly polished boot or shoe outside their door in hopes that St. Nicholas will pass by with a treat or two, or maybe three or four. Then, on the morning of December 6, lucky little boys and girls will wake up to find their shoes filled with oranges, chocolates, and maybe a small toy or two.

But who is this kindhearted gentleman who comes a full 2.5 weeks before Christmas leaving little presents in the dark of night? If you’ve got Jolly Old Saint Nick on the brain — you’re not entirely wrong. The myths and legends surrounding dear old St. Nicholas over the centuries merged with other stories and evolved to eventually spawn the contemporary version of what we now know as Santa Claus. But in Germany, the distinction remains intact. Santa Claus, or rather, der Weihnachtsmann, and Nikolaus are two entirely different people.

St. Nicholas
So who is Nikolaus exactly?

Historians say that St. Nicholas was a bishop, who lived during the 4th century in the Anatolian town of Myra, in present day Turkey. His generous heart and many good deeds made him one of Christianity’s most beloved saints. Today he is known as the patron saint of children and sailors. 

Nikolaus is said to have done many good deeds throughout his life, including saving three poor sisters from an inevitable future in prostitution by secretly dropping gold through their bedroom window. By gifting the girls gold each night for three nights, St. Nicholas provided this lucky trio with a dowry so that they could marry. Secret gift-giving is what St. Nicholas did best, and what he continues to do best up until this day. 

But what about Santa?

Now you might be thinking about another white-bearded, red-suited character who also gives gifts under the cover of a December night. How is Nikolaus different from Santa Claus? Well, Santa Claus, took that generous spirit of gift-giving to the extreme. And now the jolly white-bearded dude is more aligned with excess consumerism than heartfelt generosity. 

It’s said that Santa spiraled out of control after making his way to America via the Dutch, whose name for St. Nicholas is Sinterklaas. Santa’s inadvertent sponsorship of Coca Cola, as well as advertising campaigns that ran in popular magazines like The Saturday Evening Post and Ladies Home Journal from the 1930s onward may also have had something to do with it.

How do we know they’re not the same guy?

While Santa’s belly rounded out with all those cookies left for him on Christmas Eve (or was it all that Coke?), Nikolaus is depicted as a tall, thin figure who wears a tall hat, long cape, and holds a bishop’s staff. Some medieval paintings show him with three gold balls, which represent his gifts of gold to the three sisters.

And while Santa somehow developed a mischievous twinkle in his eye, the innocence and straightforward generosity of St. Nicholas remains intact. He’s an actual saint after all, and revered as one. You might catch “mommy” tickling Santa Claus under “his beard so snowy white,” but she’d never dream of doing anything like that to St. Nicholas. A bow, curtsy, or even a polite hand shake is more his style.

Though golden nuggets is a thing of the past for Nikolaus, his cache of gifts certainly includes some treasures, including items like oranges, gummy bears, and chocolate figures wrapped in foil that look just like he does.

In the more Evangelical parts of Germany, he’s rarely seen, but in Catholic regions, like Bavaria, as well as in Austria, Nikolaus makes frequent appearances, often accompanied by his companion who’s known as “Knecht Ruprecht” or “Krampus” — a fearsome figure who punishes naughty children. Let’s stay out of that guy’s way!

But for the most part, St. Nicholas is hardly ever seen. It’s his quiet, anonymous acts of kindness, generosity, and reminders for children to be good all the year through that form the heart of what Nikolaustag is all about. 

And with that, we wish you a Frohen Nikolaustag!

P.S. We still love you Santa Claus!




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