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Saint Nicholas

Saint Nicholas, also known as Nikolaus in Germany and Sinterklaas in the Netherlands, is the common name for the historical Saint Nicholas of Myra, who lived in fifth century Byzantine Anatolia, (now in modern Turkey) and had a reputation for secret gift-giving.

Saint Nicholas Day is a festivity for children in much of Europe related to surviving legends of the saint, and particularly his reputation as a bringer of gifts. The American and British Santa Claus derives from this festivity, the name 'Santa Claus' being a degeneration of the Dutch word "Sinterklaas".

The history of the Saint Nicholas celebration is complex and reflects the conflicts between Protestantism and Catholicism. Since Nicholas was a Catholic saint, Martin Luther replaced the Catholic festivity with a "Christkind" (Christ child) celebration on Christmas Eve. The Nicholas celebrations still remain a part of tradition among many Protestants, however, albeit on a much lower scale than Christmas. The Protestant Netherlands, however, retain a much larger Saint Nicholas tradition. Many Catholics, on the other hand, have adopted Luther's Christkind.

Table of contents
1 Celebration in Germany, Austria, and German Switzerland
2 Celebration in the Netherlands
3 Celebration in Belgium
4 Celebration in the United States, United Kingdom, and Japan

Celebration in Germany, Austria, and German Switzerland

In Germany, Nikolaus is usually celebrated on a small scale. Many children put a boot, called Nikolaus-Stiefel, outside their front doors on the night of December 5 to December 6. St. Nicholas fills the boot with gifts, and at the same time checks up on the children to see if they were good. If they were not, they will have charcoal in their boots instead. Sometimes a disguised Nikolaus also visits the children at school or in their homes and asks them if they "have been good" (sometimes ostensibly checking a book for their record), handing out presents on a per-behavior basis. This has become more lenient in recent decades.

But for many children, Nikolaus also elicited fear, as he was often accompanied by the sinister figure of Knecht Ruprecht, who would threaten to beat or sometimes actually beat the children for perceived misbehavior. In Switzerland, he would threaten to put bad children in a sack and take them back to the Black Forest. These traditions were implemented more rigidly in Catholic countries such as Austria. In highly Catholic regions, the local priest was informed by the parents about their children's behavior and would then personally visit the homes in the traditional Christian garment and even threaten them with rod-beatings. In parts of Austria, Krampusse, whom local tradition says are Nikolaus's helpers (in reality, typically children of poor families), roamed the streets during the festival. They wore masks and dragged chains behind them, even occasionally hurling them towards children in their way. These Krampusläufe (Krampus runs) still exist, although perhaps less violent than in the past.

Celebration in the Netherlands

For small children in the Netherlands, St. Nicholas eve is even more important than Christmas (the Dutch celebrate Christmas Eve with Santa as well, but it is more for the older children and grownups).

On the evening of each 5th of December, Saint Nicholas brings presents to every child which has been nice (in practice to all children). St. Nicholas, wearing a red bishop's dress including a red bishop's mitre rides, so the story goes, on a white horse over the rooftops of houses and is helped by his countless helpers, who have charcoal black faces and colorful Moorish dresses that date back two centuries. His helpers are called 'zwarte pieten' (black peters).

St. Nicholas himself has a long white beard, and holds a long gold colored staff with a fanciful curled top in his hand.

Each year St. Nicholas arrives by boat from 'Spain', and is then paraded through the streets of the town he arrives in (actually in every town of the Netherlands) welcomed by cheering children. His black peters throw hands full of candy and very small specially made round, hard cookies (Pepernoten) into the crowd. The children welcome him by singing traditional St. Nicholas songs. St. Nicholas also visits schools and shopping malls.

In the weeks before the 5th of December children can put their shoes in the hallway (traditionally before the stove) with a carrot or some hay in it for St. Nicholas' horse, in the evening, and will find a piece of candy (a piece of marzipan, an animal made out of sugar or a chocolate frog) in their shoes. Traditionally it was said that Black Peter would enter the house through the chimney, which also explained his black face and hands, and would leave a bundle of sticks (called "roe") in the shoe instead of candy when the child had not been nice. Children are also told that when they behave very badly they will be put into the sack black peter carries the presents in and will be taken back to Spain.

At the evening (or late afternoon) of the 5th of December children at home sing a song and suddenly the doorbell rings, and when they go to the door a gunny sack full of presents is found on the doorstep. Alternatively (some improvisation is often called for) the parents 'hear a sound coming from the attic' and then the presents are 'found there.

Typical presents include the first letter of the child's name made out of chocolate, a figurine of St. Nicholas made out of chocolate and wrapped in painted aluminum foil, and colored marzipan shaped into fruit, an animal or some other object. Also popular are coins and cigarettes made out of chocolate. However, the European Parliament has issued a recommendation to ban chocolate cigarettes since they might promote future real smoking.


The children, up to an age of usually seven or eight years, really believe in Sinterklaas. They think that he actually lives forever and that he comes from Spain, that he knows everything about the children and that his Zwarte Pieten crawl through chimneys. The period between his arrival and December 5 is therefore very exciting.

When children ask their parents how it can be that Sinterklaas is at so many places, they tell that he has 'Hulp' (assistent) Sinterklasen. Further, parents report in advance to the Sinterklaas at their family-gathering what the children have done good and wrong, so it looks like when the 'Goedheiligman' looks in his book, he knows everything.

For those small children, telling them at a certain age that Sinterklaas in reality doesn't exist, is the first big disappointment. There are some people who don't let their children believe in Sinterklaas, because they think it is not good to lie in general. But the common opinion is that the enjoyment for the children get is greater than this small discomfort.

Celebration in Belgium

Originally Sinterklaas or Sint-Nikolaas was only celebrated in Flanders and the Netherlands the way described above, but now he is celebrated in Walloonia too the same way. The celebrating of Saint-Nicholas is mostly the same as in the Netherlands but there are some small differences.

Note that Saint Nicholaas is celebrated in Belgium for centuries -there is even a city called St. Niklaas but, like every folkloristic thing in Belgium, their might be small differences, and generally in the east part of the Provincie East-Flanders Saint Nicholaas is not celebrated but children receive precents from Sint Maarten (Saint Martin).

Celebration in the United States, United Kingdom, and Japan

See Santa Claus