If you live in Germany, you may have noticed that, on the evening of the 5th December, children put their boots – or sometimes just one boot – outside their front door. The next morning, these boots can mysteriously be found filled with gifts, such as a fir branch, nuts, tangerines, chocolate and one or two small presents. What is that strange custom, so shortly before Christmas?
The sixth of December is the day when Christians remember Saint Nicholas. He was the Bishop of Myra, who died on that date in the year 343 and was said to have performed various miracles and good deeds. One of the latter, legend has it, was giving presents to three virgins, hence the custom of filling boots with goodies (and telling children that Saint Nicholas did it). This, however, is but one of several assumptions regarding the origin of the tradition.
Der Nikolaus, as he is called in German, may even appear in person – for example in school or at sports clubs. He will come with a bag of goodies and question each child as to whether he or she was good in the past year. And, to make matters worse, St Nicholas may chose to drag along his sidekick Knecht Ruprecht, whose sole raison d’être is scaring the children by threatening to punish the naughty ones with a twig thrashing.
Saint Nicholas is often portrayed not as a bishop but as a hefty man with a white beard in a fluffy red coat. This depiction of Santa Claus, as he became known in the US, or Father Christmas in the UK, gained global ground in the 19th century and was cunningly used and thus made even more popular in soda giant Coca Cola’s advertising campaigns. So, historically, St Nicholas and Santa Claus are identical. In Germany, however, most people will say that der Nikolaus is different from der Weihnachtsmann, the latter bringing presents on 24th December. More on this is to follow nearer to Christmas.
Next week, we’ll remember another important date.
The Pommes Buddha says: Are you all booted up?