How To German – Lesson 01: Nikolaustag
Welcome to the first of hopefully many lessons in how to German, where I will tell you about important traditions, experiences, and quirks of the grumpiest nation (not only did we lose both world wars, we also didn’t win the world cup held in our own home; you’d be grumpy, too).
I grew up in a small-ass village in Germany, but since I turned 20 I’ve been living in Canada. Every time someone notices my accent, they ask where I’m from. If I make the mistake of disclosing my origin story, people either tell me all they know about the history of my home country, or they try to convince me that they are of that heritage as well.
“Do I hear an accent”, they’d ask.
“You sure do.”
“Where is that from?”
“Mostly my vocal cords, I’d say, but I’m no biologist.”
“No, where are you from?”
“Germany”, I’d finally say with a loud sigh, knowing exactly what comes next.
“Germany? I’m German, too.”
“Yeah. My great-grandma’s step cousin has a German Shepherd.”
“Wow, impressive, maybe we’re even related.”
I don’t know why (white) people always take the slightest smidge of something foreign from their ancestry and turn it into their identity without growing up in that country, speaking the language, or following any of the cultural traditions, but I decided it was my duty to teach you people the ropes. You know, since y’all so German.
Today we’ll start with an old-school Christmas tradition you probably haven’t heard of. If you weren’t excited for December 6th as a kid, then you haven’t been raised in a German household. But it’s something you should add to your Christmas traditions, because gifts and chocolate can surpass all cultural borders. Especially if you have children. We all know parents love to lie to their kids. Whether it’s “Santa is real”, “there is a God”, or “You can become anything you want”; they get a real kick out of their offspring’s hopes and dreams being crushed when they grow up. Hahaha, Psych!
Well, now you get another cool thing to add to your child’s trauma:
On the evening of December 6th children all over Germany will leave their winter boots outside their home’s door. Next time they check their boots, they will find candy, nuts, and just small goodies in general inside of them. Their parents, snickering at the young fools, have successfully convinced them that an old dude with a long beard dressed like the pope went from door to door to give nice kids a treat.
If that sounds like “Santa lite” it’s probably because the tradition of “Nikolaustag” (or “Nikolaus day”) was the origin story of Santa Claus. But while Santa Claus is brought to you by the refreshing taste of crisp Coca Cola (not sponsored), the purpose of Nikolaustag was to celebrate the bishop Saint Nikolaus.
But it wouldn’t be a German tradition if there was only good things happening to children. Just like the Grimm’s fairy tales, the Nikolaus has a dark side to him. Actually, even right next to him, for the benevolent bishop has a companion named “Knecht Ruprecht”. Was that too difficult to pronounce for you? Don’t worry, he does have another name which, thanks to a certain horror movie, is much more popular: Krampus. While in the movie and in certain iterations, Krampus is a horned half-goat demon, Knecht Ruprecht can be simply a man dressed in black with a long black beard. A Dark Santa, so to speak. Since Nick can’t taint his reputation by beating up children, he puts his servant in charge of the punishment (and by the way, “Knecht” means “servant” or “slave”).
In the small town I grew up in, the Catholic church assigned volunteers to play the roles of St. Nikolaus and Knecht Ruprecht, going from door to door (of those families who booked the services), and plant fear in every child.
In the west every kid wishes to meet Santa Claus since he’s so nice, but when I was young this was a stressful encounter. Sure, the actor playing Knecht Ruprecht didn’t actually whip kids with his stick, but his presence was enough to scare the living shit out of me. Even St. Nikolaus was intimidating. He wasn’t a nice old man who gave me presents, he was a ruthless judge reviewing my annual antics to evaluate which punishment fit my crimes.
When you’re faced with two strangers in your house threatening to whoop your ass, getting candy at the end is less a reward and more a reminder of how close to death you’ve come. This was still Germany where even the nicest gesture turns into a dreadful warning. I was grateful for every year where my parents decided to just sneak the goodies into my shoe without involving the bishop and his slave. They were really good at pretending it was the Nikolaus and not them.
“We’re gonna check every few minutes to see if our gifts are there”, my brother and I announced.
“If you keep looking, he’s not gonna come”, my mom said right before she’d walk out the back door. “I just need to get something from the garage.”
Shortly after she returned empty handed, my brother and I checked our boots. They were filled with Yu-Gi-Oh booster packs and candy. Funny how St. Nick knew exactly what type of card game we were into at that time.
I highly recommend to adopt this Christmas tradition as opposed to stuffing stockings. Christmas Day is already filled to the brim with big presents so that the stuffed stockings often fall short of excitement. Why not stuff them a few weeks before and add another layer of excitement and suspense? I, for one, await December 6th with both dread and joy, as I try to calm my traumatized nerves with a freshly cracked can of delicious coke (seriously, not sponsored…yet).
Photo Credit: Nikolaus at Judo from Judo Ertingen