Have you been naughty or nice this year? Is St. Nick going to fill your stocking with joy or coal? You better know the answer to that question especially if you live in the German-speaking parts of Europe that are celebrating the feast of Saint Nicholas today! Let’s step back in time and jump to the 4th century where we meet the kind Bishop of Myra who became known for secretly putting coins in people’s shoes and other secret gift-giving habits; hence the legend of Santa Claus. Many children in Europe are waking up today to find that the shoes they diligently polished the night before and left outside the door have been filled with chocolates, nuts, oranges, and in some cases even gifts. This is a time old treasured tradition that dates back to the good Bishop of Myra, also know as Nicholas of Bari, and Nikolaus in Germany, Austria and Switzerland, and Sinterklaas in Holland.
In some parts Germany (particularly the south), Nikolaus makes house calls accompanied by knave Rupert who distributes gifts to those who have been good, depending on what his golden book says. On the other hand, if you have been naughty, the shoes will not be filled with goodies and you might end up with a dry branch (Rute) and a spanking. It has been theorized that the modern image of Santa Claus now comes from an amalgamation of both Nikolaus (the bishop’s red vestments) and Knave Rupert’s attires (the hooded robe traditionally in brown). Somehow when the legend crossed the Atlantic Ocean, both the figures and the outfits combined into one new figure, Santa Claus.
Although many believe that it was the Dutch settlers who brought St. Nicholas over to the New World, historians say that it is the German settlers who continued to celebrate the feast in the Americas. “After the American Revolution, New Yorkers remembered with pride their colony’s nearly-forgotten Dutch roots. John Pintard, the influential patriot and antiquarian who founded the New York Historical Society in 1804, promoted St. Nicholas as patron saint of both society and city. In January 1809, Washington Irving joined the society and on St. Nicholas Day that same year, he published the satirical fiction, Knickerbocker’s History of New York, with numerous references to a jolly St. Nicholas character. This was not the saintly bishop, rather an elfin Dutch burgher with a clay pipe.” (source: St. Nicholas Center). Another turning point took place in 1821 with the publication of the book Children’s Friend, where Sante Claus is depicted as a man from the North Pole on a sleigh. By 1823 the good bishop of Myra had completely transfigured into the jolly pot-bellied elf with flying reindeer, immortalized in Clement Clark Moore’s poem “The Night Before Christmas” (original title having been “A visit from St. Nicholas). NB: literary critics have challenged the validity of Moore’s authorship of this poem, claiming it actually belonged to Henry Livingston. I highly recommend you spend some time on the St. Nicholas Center website, it is loaded with fascinating information on St. Nicholas and the transformation into Santa Claus.
The confusion between Nikolaus and Santa Claus is a topic many multicultural families are confronted with or even children who attend schools that espouse different religious beliefs than their own at home. I grew up with the North American Santa Claus, who brought me my gifts on December 24th. The addition of the German dimension of my family. however, forced me to revise the concept in order accommodate the best of both worlds and uphold all family traditions. Christmas gets really complicated at our home because Nikolaus visits on December 6th bringing mostly chocolates, oranges and nuts. On Christmas Eve, Santa Claus is in charge of gifts. What I don’t subscribe to is the South German tradition of the Baby Jesus (Christkind) bringing gifts, because I refused to mix religious principles with gift giving. The religious upbringing of a child should be clear cut, and not confused with marketing and materialism. The Spirit of Christmas should be exactly that – nurturing of the spiritual beliefs.
So how do the two characters compare? Well, it boils down to apples and oranges but both uphold the spirit of generosity. Whereas St. Nicholas espoused the values of humility, generosity, outreach, caring (and was a real person), Santa Claus is an entirely fictional character that seems to be a catalyst of material greed. The concept of being “naughty or nice” is about the only virtue that can be associated with Santa.