CHRISTMAS COMPARED > Christmas in the USA and Germany
Wer ist Sankt Nikolaus?
Who is Saint Nicholas indeed?
Nikolaus Part 1 > Nikolaus Part 2
In various parts of Germany, St. Nicholas goes by different names: Belsnickle, Ruprecht, Pelznickel, and others. Just who was Santa Claus or Father Christmas in reality? Since the Germans (and the Dutch) brought many of their customs to America directly or indirectly, we need to look first at Europe.
Across the German-speaking region of Europe there are many kinds of Santa Clauses with many different names. Despite their many names, they are all basically the same mythic character. But few of them have anything to do with the real Saint Nicholas (Sankt Nikolaus or der Heilige Nikolaus), who was probably born around A.D. 245 in the port city of Patara in what we now call Turkey. Very little solid historical evidence exists for the man who later became the Bishop of Myra and the patron saint of children, sailors, students, teachers, and merchants. He is credited with several miracles and his feast day is December 6, which is the main reason he is connected with Christmas. In Austria, parts of Germany, and Switzerland, der Heilige Nikolaus (or Pelznickel) brings his gifts for children on Nikolaustag, Dec. 6, not Dec. 25. Nowadays, St. Nicholas Day (der Nikolaustag) on Dec. 6 is a preliminary round for Christmas.
Although Austria is mostly Catholic, Germany is almost evenly divided between Protestants and Catholics (along with some minority religions). So in Germany there are both Catholic (katholisch) and Protestant (evangelisch) Christmas customs. When Martin Luther, the great Protestant Reformer, came along, he wanted to get rid of the Catholic elements of Christmas. To replace Sankt Nikolaus (Protestants don’t emphasize saints!), Luther introduced der Heilige Christ (later called das Christkindl), an angel-like Christ Child, to bring Christmas gifts and reduce the importance of Saint Nicholas. Later this Christkindl figure would be replaced by der Weihnachtsmann (Father Christmas) in Protestant regions and even cross the Atlantic, where Christkindl mutated into the English term Kris Kringle. Ironically, in the present day the originally Protestant Christkindl is now predominant in the Catholic regions of Germany (Bavaria) and Switzerland, as well as in Austria.
Ja, und ich bin der Weihnachtsmann!
Yes, and I’m Santa Claus!
(Said when you doubt what someone has just said.)
Besides the Catholic and Protestant aspects, Germany is a country of many regions and regional dialects, making the question of who Santa Claus is even more complicated. There are in fact so many German names (and customs) for Nikolaus and his escorts that I have created a special Nikolaus Glossary just for all the names. On top of that, there are both religious and secular German Christmas customs. (That American Santa Claus has really gotten around!) However, on the next page we’ll summarize some of the main German Christmas characters and customs.
MORE > Christmas - from A to Z
Web page Copyright © 1997-2011 Hyde Flippo
Related Pages - A German Christmas
- St. Nikolaus Part 2 - More St. Nicks and the the German Father Christmas
- “Morgen kommt der Weihnachtsmann” - German and English lyrics for this popular German carol (from AboutGerman.net)
- A German Christmas - Part One
- A German Christmas - from A to Z - Alphabetical index
- Advent and Christmas - The “arrival”
- Barbarazweig - The legend and the Christmas custom.
- The Christmas Tree and its German history
- The German Pickle Ornament - Is it really a German tradition?
- Glass Ornaments - a history
- Silent Night (Stille Nacht) - Our “Silent Night” page has the true story and related links.
- A German Advent Calendar - Daily Christmas facts starting on Dec. 1 (in season)
- Nikolaus von Myra - Über das Leben des historischen Nikolaus gibt es nur wenige historisch belegte Tatsachen.
- German Christmas Carols - Lyrics in German and English - from AboutGerman.net.
- Nikolaus-Lexikon (Santa glossary - About.com)
- California Revels - Christmas - Annual Christmas Revels, A Solstice Tradition (2009 Bavarian Nikolaus customs)
- Christmas Links - Our links list is so large, it has a page of its own!
BACK > Christmas - Part 1
Christmas graphics on this page courtesy Brigitte Haag