Today is St Nicholas, celebrating the patron saint of children. The night before St Nicholas, we place out shoes outside the door in the hope that St Nicholas will fill them with apples, sweets, nuts and – hopefully! – a little present.
Before he became the official poster boy for a well-known beverages company, St Nicholas was a bishop in the 4th century. He lived in an area that is now in Turkey and was known for his generosity and for his kindness towards and concern for children and sailors. Hence his reputation as a giver of gifts, and as a patron saint for children.
St Nicholas is a special saint in that he is – as far as I know – one of the only saints that is recognised both in the Orthodox Churches of Eastern Europe and in the Catholic Church in the West, which makes him a very powerful symbol of unity, at least in my mind.
Martin Luther, however, was much less impressed with him than I am, seeing that he was part and parcel of what he rebelled against in the Catholic church at the time: the worship of saints. For Luther, there could only be one God, and the numerous statues and chapels and what-nots that cluttered the churches at the time bothered him greatly. A shrewd political thinker like Luther, however, knew that you couldn’t simply take away the guy who gave gifts to children, so he simply replaced him with the ‘Christkind’ the ‘christchild’, the bearer of gifts at Christmas.
Whether it was Luther himself who tried to demote St Nicholas is disputed, but the Christkind is most certainly a by-product of the Reformation. And a successful one at that, as today German Catholics and Protestants alike celebrate its arrival on Christmas Eve.
Nevertheless St Nicholas visits children on the 6th of December, often accompanied by his helper Knecht Ruprecht (‘farmhand Rupert), a much darker figure who checks the children have behaved well during the past year, in order to deserve a present. My mum always told us the story that when she was a child, in her village they had abandoned the whole notion of a St Nicholas and only had a Knecht Ruprecht who would go from house to house, get some Schnapps from the parents and threaten to take any naughty kids with him in his large bag. One time he arrived rather drunk and took one of my uncles along with him – my granny had to run after him, armed with a broom, to force him to hand him back!
Our own children are spared those violent excesses. St Nicholas always remembers to visit them three weeks before he comes to everybody else: no Rudolph the red-nosed reindeer for us! Even the Simpson’s pet ‘Santa’s little Helper’ had to be re-named in the German version as nobody would have understood the link. He’s called ‘Knecht Ruprecht’ instead.
Our only concession to living in Santa territory is that we placed our boots in front of the fireplace instead of outside the front door: as the little one is playing ‘Santa who’s stuck in the chimney’ in her nursery’s nativity play she insisted that’s where they needed to be.