Nikolaus, Weihnachtsmann, Christkind: What's the difference?
This weekend, children up and down the country will be leaving out a (freshly-polished!) shoe for Nikolaus to fill up with sweets and little treats. Then, on the official national holiday, the Weihnachtsmann will be back to deliver more presents - unless you're in the domain of the Christkind. Or if you’ve been naughty, you’re more likely to be visited by Krampus, Knecht Ruprecht or maybe even Belsnickel.
If you're new to Germany and you're a bit confused about the difference between all these present-givers and punishers, you're not alone. To help you navigate your way through the festive season, we've put together this “who's who” of yuletide visitors.
Nikolaus (St. Nicholas)
With his red attire and long white beard, it would be easy to confuse Nikolaus with his more well-known cousin, Santa Claus - but they are actually two different people. While Santa Claus sneaks into German houses on Christmas Eve to leave presents, Nikolaus pays a visit much earlier, on December 6. For a long time in Austria and parts of Germany, he was the main character in Christmas celebrations.
Who was the real Saint Nicholas?
The real Saint Nicholas was a man called Nicholas of Myra, a Greek Christian bishop who lived during the 4th century in the area now known as Turkey. During his lifetime, he performed various miracles. Legend has it he once resurrected three children who had been murdered and pickled by a butcher, but perhaps his most famed habit was that of secret gift-giving: he used to leave gold coins in poor children’s shoes while they were sleeping.
Canonised as the patron saint of little children, sailors and merchants, Nikolaus’s life and deeds began to be celebrated on his Feast Day, December 6. As early as the Middle Ages, the custom of giving small gifts to children had already been established.
Nikolaus in Germany
The tradition continues to this day in Germany, where children leave out a shoe on the evening of December 5. Ideally, it needs to be a boot, but any old shoe will do. The most important thing is that it has to be freshly-cleaned and polished. If they’ve behaved well this year, Nikolaus will fill the shoe with nuts, fruit, chocolate, sweets and maybe a couple of small gifts.
If they have been naughty, they receive a switch (of wood), for the parents to spank their child with. In some areas, Nikolaus visits the house or the child’s school to question them about their behaviour. He resembles a Catholic bishop, donning a mitre and a brocade coat and holding a golden staff.
While some religious families focus the gift-giving on Nikolaus, in order to make Christmas Day a more solemn observance of Jesus’ birth, for the vast majority December 6 is simply a preliminary round in the run-up to the main event on December 24 and 25.
Christkind (The Christ Child)
For a long time, Nikolaus was the primary character in Advent celebrations in Germany. However, the face of Christmas began to diversify with the onset of the Protestant Reformation and the arrival of the Christkind.
The story behind the Christkind
The story goes like this: Martin Luther was uncomfortable with the tradition of Nikolaus, since the idolisation of saints was a Catholic custom. Rather than abolishing present-giving outright, Luther instead decided to introduce a new figure to recentre the German Christmas tradition on the child whose birth it celebrated. Das Christkind (Christ Child) was invented as an angel-like Jesus figure who brought the children presents. To distance it from the old Catholic tradition, Luther had the date of gift-giving moved from December 6 to Christmas Eve.
Over time, however, the separate traditions became muddled. While in Protestant regions the Christkind began to be overtaken by a secularised version of Nikolaus, known as der Weihnachtsmann (literally, the Christmas Man), in Catholic areas it transformed from a representation of Jesus to a blonde, female angel. When a mixture of the two traditions hopped across the Atlantic with German emigrants, “Christkind” mutated into “Kris Kringle”.
Somewhat ironically, nowadays it is in the traditionally Catholic areas of Germany that the originally Protestant Christkind holds the greatest significance. The world-famous Christmas market in Nuremberg, for instance, is named for the angelic figure and every two years chooses a young woman for the honoured task of representing her.
Christkind tradition in Germany
The Christkind is traditionally depicted as a sprite-like, angelic child, dressed all in white with blonde hair, golden wings and a golden crown. In the run-up to Christmas, some children write letters to the Christkind, which they decorate with sugar and then leave on a windowsill. Then, on Christmas Eve, the Christkind visits the house to leave presents under the tree.
The angel is not supposed to be seen - parents tell their children that if they try to look out for her, she won’t come. Sometimes, they secretly ring a bell to announce that she has just left and then the children race to find their presents.
Weihnachtsmann (Santa Claus)
In recent years, both the Christkind and Nikolaus have faced increasing competition from the Weihnachtsmann, the secularised, Americanised figure of Santa Claus that has become a beloved present-giver worldwide.
Where did the Weihnachtsmann come from?
Santa Claus, as we know him today, was developed during the 19th century in America out of the convergence of several distinct traditions. British folklore had long included a personification of Christmas known as “Father Christmas”. When this merged with the Dutch figure of Sinterklaas, Nikolaus was transformed into a jolly figure with big rosy cheeks. He kept his traditional red clothes and long white beard.
It took a while for this new figure to be accepted in Germany. A 1932 survey found that German children were pretty evenly split on whether they believed in the Weihnachtsmann (as he became known in Germany) or the Christkind. Over time, however, Santa Claus proved victorious, and nowadays almost every region in Germany looks forward to a visit from the Weihnachtsmann at Christmas - except for traditionally Catholic areas.
Celebrating Christmas with Santa Claus in Germany
If children want to receive a present from the Weihnachtsmann, they send a letter at the beginning of the Advent season and hope that he deems them well-behaved enough to have their requests granted.
Like in many parts of the world, the Weihnachtsmann usually visits German houses on Christmas Eve, but he doesn’t come down the chimney, and he doesn’t have any reindeer. The German Santa rides a white horse.
German children don’t have to wait until Christmas morning to open their presents, either, since the main event comes on Christmas Eve, either just before or just after dinner. Traditionally, the children are kept out of the room until the last minute, when the gloriously decorated Christmas tree and presents underneath are revealed.
St Nick’s sidekicks
Just as different parts of Germany have different customs when it comes to Santa Claus (or Nikolaus, or Weihnachtsmann, or Christkind), they also have a whole cast of regionally-varying Santa sidekicks. Here is an overview of the most famous ones.
Also known as Rauer Percht, Knecht Ruprecht is Saint Nicholas’ most commonly-seen companion, who acts as a kind of foil to the benevolent gift-bringer, threatening to thrash or take away naughty children. According to some stories, Ruprecht began life as a farmhand. In others, he is a wild foundling whom Saint Nicholas takes under his wing.
He generally wears a black or brown robe with a pointed hood, and sometimes he walks with a limp. He carries a long staff and a bag of ashes. Tradition dictates that he asks the children whether they know their prayers. If they do, they are rewarded with apples, nuts and gingerbread. The ones who do not are hit with his bag of ashes or given things like lumps of coal, stones or lumps of wood for their parents to beat them with.
Krampus is a horned, devil-like figure who appears in Central European folklore as a punisher of naughty children. In Bavaria, he is one of Nikolaus’ companions. Although he appears in many variations, typically he is hairy and has the hooves and horns of a goat. He also has a long, pointed tongue and fangs.
The night before Nikolaus, December 5, is known as Krampusnacht in parts of Germany. People dressed up in diabolical Krampus costumes patrol the streets - and sometimes hundreds of Krampuses gather to drink a Schnapps and run together. The Krampus Run in Munich is one famous example. Be on your guard - the wily parents of particularly troublesome children might invite Krampus in to have a word!
In the Palatinate (Pfalz) region of Germany, Belsnickel (or Pelznickel) is a different companion of Saint Nicholas. He is a rather scary figure who dresses in tattered furs and sometimes wears a mask with a long tongue. He carries a wooden switch in his hand for beating troublesome children, but his pockets are also filled with treats for the well behaved.
While Pelznickel literally translates as “fur Nicholas”, since Nickel is a diminutive form of Nicholas, it is actually derived from the old Germanic verb pelzen, which means to beat or thrash.
Have you been naughty or nice?
With all of these devilish, stick-bearing characters roaming Germany, you’d better be on your best behaviour! Here’s hoping that the Weihnachtsmann or Christkind pays a visit instead. Merry Christmas!