Booty

Sinterklaas . Dutch chocolate figure

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?

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A saint called Martin

Different handmade lanterns, Sankt Martin

Have some of you expats, newly-arriveds and visitors ever wondered about parades of children with lanterns accompanied by a horse and rider crowding the streets in the November twilight? Or about open fires that no-one seems to be concerned about? And what is a Martinsgans, anyway?

Apart from the regional beginning-of-carnival-season craze, 11 November in Germany is also St Martin’s Day. In late October and early November, schools and nurseries are busy making lanterns with the children, which the little ones then carry proudly on the day of the parade, suspended from poles with little light bulbs to illuminate the precious artworks. Songs are sung, ‘Sankt Martin’ being the most famous one, and ‘St Martin’ and the horse guide the crowd around the block to the bonfire. And then, there’s the best part: each child gets a Weckmann, also called a Stutenkerl in some regions, a man made of fluffy white yeast dough clutching a clay pipe (which used to be a real pipe until everyone knew that it was excellently suited for smoking weed, so now it is just a phoney thing).

This is all in honour of St Martin of Tours, an ascetic monk-turned-bishop who, the story goes, compassionately cut his cloak in half to share it with a beggar who was freezing in the snow. The custom of the bonfire (‘Martinsfeuer’) is likely to stem from Germanic midwinter and thanksgiving traditions, with the lanterns (and sometimes torches) fulfilling the same role. The Weckmann probably represents St Martin himself.

During this time of year, many restaurants offer a traditional ‘St Martin’s Goose Meal’ of roasted goose leg served with red cabbage and potato dumplings. This goes back to a legend of St Martin hiding among geese to avoid a fuss over his becoming a bishop and being ‘told on’ by the animals. If your bouche has been ‘amused’ by this, you will look forward to the Variations of Lime on next week’s menu.

The Pommes Buddha says: We love a bit of goose-flesh in the winter.

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