Wednesday, December 23, 2009

Christmas in Germany...Part II

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Saint Nicholas - Sankt Nikolaus


St. Nicholas Day is celebrated on December 6th in Germany as well as in other European countries. On the evening before the 6th, children place their newly cleaned shoes in front of the door in the hope that Nicholas might fill them with nuts, fruits, chocolate, and sweets. If the children have behaved well, their wishes will be fulfilled. Children who have caused mischief will receive only a switch, which symbolizes punishment for their bad deeds.



By James Christiansen

The real St. Nicholas lived in the 4th century and was the bishop of a region located in present-day Turkey. Through stories and legends associated with him, he became known as the protector of children and the anonymous bestower of gifts upon them. Over the centuries, the life and deeds of St. Nicholas were celebrated on the saint's appointed day, the 6th of December. By the Middle Ages, the observance had already become a celebration of children and a day on which they received gifts. It was the German Martin Luther who sought to sever the connection between the saint and the gift-giving celebration for children, because in his Reformation theology, there was no place for the glorification of saints. Rather than abolishing the custom outright, Luther replaced the persona of Nicholas with that of the Christ child; in his Protestant teachings, not Nicholas but rather now the baby Jesus was attributed with bringing the children gifts, and not on the saint's day but rather at Christmas. Today in many regions of Germany, not Saint Nick, but rather the Christkindl leaves Christmas gifts for children on December 24th.




The adherents of the Catholic Counterreformation did not quietly accept the diminishment of their saint. They responded to the practices of the unorthodox Protestants by making Nicholas a figure who visited families' homes on his appointed day and stood in judgment over children. If the young ones could answer religious questions and said their bedtime prayers faithfully, they received a gift from the sack that Nicholas' companion, Knecht Ruprecht, had slung over his shoulder. Those that slacked in their religious commitments got the switch or were threatened with being hauled off in Ruprecht's sack.

Today children in all the German-speaking regions, regardless of religious denomination, celebrate Nicholastag. Ruprecht, who typically carries a basket filled with edible goodies for the children (and also the switches for the naughty children), has become Nicholas' constant companion. In German-speaking Switzerland, Ruprecht is known as Schmutzli.


Santa Claus - Der Weihnachtsmann



J. C. Leyendecker

Saturday Evening Post
December 26, 1925


The figure of Santa Claus, known in Germany as der Weihnachtsmann (literally, "the Christmas man"), is a direct descendant of Saint Nicholas, as can easily be seen from the derivation of the name "Santa Claus". The English appellation came directly from the Dutch variant "Sinterklaas". Centuries-old Northern European tradition also knew a similar figure - a bearded old man in a long, brown, hooded fur coat who traveled on a reindeer-drawn sled. Carrying a staff and nuts, respectively symbolizing fertility and non-perishable, substantial nourishment, this figure from Lapland represented preparation for the long winter season ahead. This figure likely in turn descends from the god Thor or another deity from Germanic mythology.




Many of the characteristics attributed to the modern-day Santa Claus are easily recognizable in both the St. Nicholas figure and the personality descended from old Germanic folklore. The Weihnachtsmann, much like Santa Claus, is depicted as a jolly old man with a long white beard in a red fur suit, with a sack of presents and a switch. On Christmas Eve he leaves gifts for the well-behaved children and punishes those who have been bad. He doesn't arrive through the chimney, but rather slips in and out just long enough to leave the gifts, usually before children can catch a glimpse of him. Depending on the German-speaking region, today it is either the Weihnachtsmann or the Christkind (Christ child) who leaves gifts for the children to open on December 24th in Germany.



The Christmas tree - Der Tannenbaum



The traditional tannenbaum has lit candles

The German Tannenbaum is usually put up and decorated on Christmas Eve, though some families opt to erect their tree during the Advent season. Traditionally, the Germans used the fir tree, but nowadays the spruce is widely used. Decorations may include tinsel, glass balls or straw ornaments and sweets. A star or an angel tops the Tannenbaum, and beneath the tree, a nativity scene might be set up and the presents next to it. Germans also usually continue to use real lit candles instead of electric lights on the tree.

The first known Christmas tree was set up in 1419 in Freiburg by the town bakers, who decorated the tree with fruits, nuts, and baked goods, which the children were allowed to remove and eat on New Year's Day. The town guilds and associations first brought evergreens inside their guild houses and decorated them with apples and sweets. Candles were eventually added to the decorations. Already since the Middle Ages, ordinary Germans had been bringing yew, juniper, mistletoe, holly, evergreen boughs - any plant that maintained its green color through the lifeless and dreary winter months - into their homes. Even in areas where forests were sparse, the tradition took hold; people in Northern Germany, for instance, used Christmas pyramids (Weihnachtspyramiden) in lieu of Christmas trees. The pyramid form was created using sticks that were then decorated with fir branches. By 1800, the custom of bringing a tree into the home was firmly established in many German-speaking regions and continued to spread throughout Europe, and eventually, around the world. The custom was brought to North America by German-speaking immigrants to Pennsylvania and Ohio in the 18th century.




The Tannenbaum is taken down on New Year's Day or on January 6th, Three King's Day, at which time the children can ransack the tree for the sweets and treats that decorated it.

Adapted from vistawide.com

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