The joys of St. Nicholas Day in Germany

by Megan Finley Contributing writer

If you wake up the morning of Dec. 6 to find a full bag of candy or presents waiting for you, it’s likely you received a visit from St. Nicholas.

In parts of Germany, “Sankt Nikolaus,” or as we call him in English, St. Nicholas, brings gifts for children on “Nikolaustag,” St. Nicholas Day. Houses are thoroughly cleaned, and children clean their shoes or boots, preferably the biggest pair possible, in preparation for the big man to visit.

The evening before St. Nicholas Day, children place letters and carrots or other food near their shiny shoes for the bishop with the flowing beard and staff and his white horse or donkey. These items are sometimes left outside, under a bed or near a window for St. Nicholas to come fill them with goodies. St. Nicholas then goes from house to house with a book where all of the children’s deeds for the year are carefully noted. In theory, if the children have been good, he fills their shoes or a plate with fruits, nuts and candies. If the children have been bad, their shoes are filled with potatoes, coal and twigs.

Also on this day, many children recite poems or sing songs for the bishop. Some even make a small gift for him. Other traditions include lighting candles on the Advent wreath and the Christmas pyramid with a nativity scene; and then some families read stories and sing songs as everyone waits for his arrival. When there is a knock on the door, the jolly saint comes in with his book and sack of goodies, and one of the children holds his staff for him as he asks them, “Have you behaved yourself?” If the answer is “yes,” he gives out gifts and goodies for everyone to share. The children share their surprises with St. Nicholas as well.

Different areas of Germany have different customs. For example, in Stuttgart children dress up as the jolly saint and go door to door for sweets.

In the Moselle region, St. Nicholas is known as the patron saint who protects the people from danger. During the time of the Celts and Romans, ships were towed up the river using manpower and later animals, a dangerous procedure, therefore shrines and chapels dedicated to the saint were built along the Moselle River in exchange for his protection.

If you decide to attend the Bernkastel-Kues Christmas Market this year or the market in Mainz, do not be surprised to find Sankt Nikolaus himself make an appearance. Bernkastel-Kues Christmas Market runs through Dec. 20, and the Mainz Christmas Market runs through Dec. 23.