Back to Advent Calendar

December 6

Nikolaus

Who is Santa Claus and why does he bring presents?

In Germany it’s tradition, that children who behaved well during the year get a sweet surprise in the boot on December 6. On the day before children will clean their shoes so they really get some sweets. 😊 So why is that?

Who was St. Nicholas?

In the figure of St. Nicholas, two historical figures are fused into one. One is St. Nicholas of Myra, bishop of a city in present-day Turkey. He lived in the third century. On the other hand St. Nicholas of Sion, a place near Myra, from the sixth century.

The legends about the lives of the two men intertwined to form the mythical figure of Saint Nicholas of Myra. He is said to have performed numerous miracles, including calming a storm and bringing several dead back to life. One story tells of how he helps an impoverished father of three daughters: the desperate father is about to send his daughters into prostitution. Nikolaus helps by secretly throwing gold pieces through the window at night. The myth of the merciful helper and protector, who gives presents to children unrecognized in the night, is born.

Saint Nicholas: Patron saint of sailors

In the Middle Ages Nicholas was one of the most popular saints, in Russia he even rose to the status of national saint. As the patron saint of sailors and merchants, St. Nicholas became the patron saint of the Hanseatic League. A number of St. Nicholas churches in the Hanseatic cities, including Rostock, Wismar and Stralsund, still bear witness to this today. In Hamburg, the St. Nikolai Memorial commemorates the victims of war and tyranny under National Socialism.

Servant Ruprecht, the “evil” companion

However, from the 19th century at the latest, St. Nicholas is not only a benevolent bringer of gifts, but also a punisher of cheeky children. Frequently he is accompanied in exactly this role by a frightening man who is supposed to scare children and has a different name depending on the region: servant Ruprecht, Pulterklas or also Rupsack. Instead of a gift sack he usually carries a rod with him. But he did not always play the role of evil in history: In the 19th century, it was assumed that St. Nicholas’ helper could be traced back to pagan rituals: in winter, he was on the road to drive away evil spirits.

By the way, it wasn’t Coca-Cola who gave him this look, but the German emigrant Thomas Nast. He drew Santa Claus in the USA as early as 1862 with a white beard, red coat and fur-trimmed cap. It was not until 1931 that Coca-Cola began using the figure of Santa Claus in an advertising campaign.