Why St. Nicholas puts candy in boots and stole our hearts

Saint Nicholas — one man, one mission

Out and about with staff and miter

Saint Nicholas was a 4th century bishop who lived in Myra, a town in what is today Turkey. According to legend, this son of rich parents gave his entire wealth to the poor. This made him the forerunner of Father Christmas or Santa Claus and Germany's Christ Child, as well as becoming a symbol of the Christmas season.

Saint Nicholas — one man, one mission

Of, and for the masses

Saint Nicholas was used by a cola company in 1931 in the United States to advertise their beverage, showing him in what has become the accepted attire of all red with white trimmings. These days those outfits must be flexible enough to withstand sporting activities, like the Father Christmas race in Michendorf in the German state of Brandenburg.

Saint Nicholas — one man, one mission

Cold feet are not a problem!

At the annual global conference of Father Christmases in the Danish capital Copenhagen, hundreds of men and more recently an increasing number of women, from 15 nations ready themselves for the busy and stressful festive season. A bracing dip in the water can only help boost energy.

Saint Nicholas — one man, one mission

Diving under

Today's St. Nicholas also take on additional special missions — like delivering food for the fish in the 250,000 liter (66,000 US gallon) aquarium in the Multimar Waddensea Forum in Schleswig-Holstein's Tönning.

Saint Nicholas — one man, one mission

Edible production line Santas

Edible Santas have been around since 1820. The first examples were made by hand and consisted entirely of chocolate. These days they are made in a mold and are usually hollow. Germany produces some 150 million such chocolate Father Christmases every year.

Saint Nicholas — one man, one mission

Good cop, bad cop

In many Catholic areas of Europe, benevolent Saint Nicholas is accompanied by his threatening servant. In Germany he is called Knecht Ruprecht, who with his rod and sack of coals threatens to thrash misbehaving children. In France he is known as Père Fouettard, in the Netherlands as Zwarte Piet, in Switzerland as Schmutzli and in Austria and southern Germany he is called Krampus.

Saint Nicholas — one man, one mission

With a great following

In southern Germany the Buttnmandl procession involves St. Nicholas being followed by wild creatures covered in furs and straw ringing bells and yelling as he goes from house to house to chase away any bad spirits. This heathen ritual in the Berchtesgaden area was gradually integrated into Christian traditions, and has become a popular spectacle on December 5th and 6th.

Saint Nicholas — one man, one mission

A friendly exchange

St Nicholas can be flexible when it comes to mode of transport. On a bike in Germany, on a sligh drawn by reindeer in Finland or on the back of a dromedary like here at the Red Sea in Egypt — and thanks to his white beard, fur trimmed coat and hat he is also recognized in Muslim countries.

Saint Nicholas — one man, one mission

Under the radar - well mostly

This photo from a speed camera shows St. Nicholas and his chauffeur in a bit of a hurry. The car was traveling 10 km (6 miles) faster than the speed limit of 50 kilometers per hour. In view of the time pressures that "Saint Nicholas" is under authorities let him off with a warning rather than a hefty fine.

Saint Nicholas — one man, one mission


How St. Nicholas or Santa Claus manages to be in lots of different places around the world at the same time will remain a mystery. But one thing is known that he will return next year and stay on course when flying across the sky, like here over Lake Geneva.

Were your boots ready for St. Nicholas Day on December 6? DW's Sertan Sanderson explores why the saint means so much to both secular and religious people all over the world.

Each year, something peculiar happens on the eve of December 5: Children across Germany each leave a single boot outside their doorsteps, which is then magically filled overnight with chocolate and sweets.

Other cultures in Europe and beyond have also taken to celebrating similar traditions either on the same date or stretched out throughout the holiday season. The tradition of hanging stockings up on Christmas Eve is one of the parallels that might come to mind.

December 6 is the day that celebrates St. Nicholas — Santa Claus's predecessor, if you like.

Long, flowing beards and red overcoats are but two commonalities they share. But unlike the American invention of Santa Claus, which can at least partly be traced back to clever marketing by Coca-Cola from the early 1930s, St. Nicholas carries the weight of almost two millennia on his shoulders — in addition to various gifts and pick-me-ups.

Globalization | 24.12.2013

His sidekick, known as Knecht Ruprecht in certain parts of Germany, or more commonly referred to as Krampus, even got his own blockbuster movie - but that's another story altogether.

The 'person of faith' behind Santa

Carol Myers from the St. Nicholas Center, a US-based website that focuses on providing in-depth information on the popular saint's life and times, says that she has always been a St. Nicholas enthusiast. Her organization hosts a traveling exhibit based on the saint's biography, while also telling the lore that follows him throughout the world.

"When my children were small I wanted them to know there was a person of faith behind Santa Claus. So, St. Nicholas Day was the perfect time to talk about St. Nicholas. Since we live in a Dutch-heritage town in Michigan it was easy to add Dutch touches to our observance. The children would put out their wooden shoes out and receive small toys and Dutch chocolate gold coins and we'd talk a bit about St. Nicholas," Myers tells DW.

The saint who transcends boundaries

Myers's passion for Nicholas isn't an isolated phenomenon. People from all over the world celebrate the man whose image has inspired the icon of a benevolent man bearing gifts during — at least for the Northern hemisphere — some of the coldest and darkest times of the year.

Coca-Cola invented Santa Claus in the 1930s, while St. Nicholas had been known across Europe for centuries

Carol Myers says that, beyond bringing warmth to children's hearts, St. Nicholas bridges the divide between religious and secular, "as he's beloved by children everywhere, whether called St. Nicholas or Santa Claus."

"Many people, whether religious or not, are looking for more meaning in their holiday traditions and want to learn more about St. Nicholas, who helps focus more on giving than getting, more on compassion than consumption," she points out.

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"His appeal also spans the Christian spectrum. He is one of the most significant saints in the Orthodox and Eastern Rite traditions, beloved by Roman Catholics and Anglicans, and many Protestants, as well."

Nicholas remains as one of the few saints whose universal popularity survived the advent of the Protestant age. Legend has it that Martin Luther himself tried to combat the saint's status by associating the practice of stocking-stuffing with Christmas rather than St. Nicholas Day, thus founding the tradition of gift-giving on December 24 or 25.

A saint for non-believers

But Luther's attempts fell short of achieving their full intentions, with more churches named after St. Nicholas than any other saint — bar Mary. This has contributed to further crafting the fable of a man who rises above religious infighting and division. Professor Adam English, chair of the Department of Religion and Philosophy at Campbell University in North Carolina, believes that St. Nicholas transcends religious appeal altogether.

"Unlike so many Christian saints who are revered and remembered by the pious few, Nicholas is celebrated by religious and non-religious alike. His reach goes beyond the walls of the church and beyond the pages of church history to the hearts of children and the imaginations of parents who name their daughters Collette and their sons Nick," English tells DW.

English wrote a book telling the historical story of St. Nicholas, entitled "The Saint Who Would Be Santa Claus," published by Baylor University Press. In it, he explores what he calls "the true and compelling tale of Saint Nicholas."

This postcard from the 19th century depicts the Dutch tradition of filling shoes with goodies for Sinterklaas

"Unique local customs cheer the arrival of Nicholas from Argentina to Iceland, from Canada to Palestine. He is the patron saint of entire countries, such as Russia and Greece, not to mention cities, professions, and any other number of things. And of course, he is the patron saint of children."

The man behind the legend

The historic figure behind the archetype embodied by St. Nicholas is Nicholas of Myra, whose life spanned from the late third to the mid fourth centuries. He lived in present-day southern Turkey, which was then part of the Roman Empire before the dawn of the Byzantine age, and brought people together at a time when social divisions and civil unrest were driving them further and further apart.

The reputation of being a man of good deeds preceded him throughout the Christian world; some of the acts attributed to St. Nicholas include him providing dowries for three young women to save them from falling into prostitution, saving innocent people from execution, and feeding the poor during famines.

"He strongly lived out Jesus' command to 'give all you have to the poor' and he did so, helping those who were most vulnerable: women and the poor. He lived the command to 'love your neighbor as yourself' by example," Carol Myers explains.

"Unusual for his time, Nicholas became a saint because of the quality of his life, not the nature of his death, as he was not martyred, as were most saints of that era," she adds.

The early December tradition of St. Nicholas Day has been a strong influence on the idea of Santa Claus

Myers adds that during his lifetime Nicholas became a devout bishop holding traditional beliefs. He was part of the collective of bishop attending the First Council of Nicaea, where an estimated 300 bishops established some vital foundations of early Christian doctrine, including the Nicene Creed — the profession of faith still recited at mass today.

Nicholas is coming to town

As much as Nicholas came to embody fairytale stories that still brighten children's lives, there was a real person taking far-reaching actions in his lifetime during the early days of Christendom which have all become part of religious and non-religious holiday rituals today.

"There's a real history and a real person at the bottom of all of the holiday cheer," says English, who is a self-professed fan of all holiday traditions that are based by-and-large on both the facts and the myths embodied by St. Nicholas.

"Some might say that we have lost the saintly seriousness of the season, that we have made it too lighthearted and silly and forgotten the real meaning of things," comments English. "But it is good for us to laugh, and to laugh at ourselves, be a little silly and ridiculous, and even a little childish. We have a hard time figuring out something as simple as that. That's why we need a model: Saint Nicholas provides us with a guide, a model, and an example of someone who can laugh, is cheerful, and can have fun with the kids."

Krampus, Santa's terrifying companion

The Christmas demon

The Krampus is a mythical character popular in the alpine regions of southern Germany, Switzerland, Austria, South Tyrol in Italy and parts of the Czech Republic. The demon-like creature, which punishes misbehaving children, appears during the Christmas season. Dressed in animal fur, Krampuses wear cow bells attached to the waist, which they ring by shaking their hips.

Krampus, Santa's terrifying companion

Grisly appearance

Shocking people with its gruesome looks, the Krampus is Saint Nicholas' evil companion, watching out for naughty kids. Once it snatches them, it packs them in a basket it wears on its back and carts them off to the underworld. Sounds pretty scary, but doesn't keep people from attending the runs every year around Christmas time.

Krampus, Santa's terrifying companion

This girl must have been naughty

This Krampus in Austria catches a young woman from the crowd. Actually the runs through the alpine villages can be quite rough. Brawls are reported when onlookers and Krampuses clash - all in good humor.

Krampus, Santa's terrifying companion

Pagan mythology

The tradition dates back at least to the 16th century and is related to the Perchten gatherings in southern Germany. Perchten are the mythical entourage of Perchta, a goddess in the ancient southern German alpine pagan tradition. Krampus runs take place even in the United States and annual celebrations have begun in cities including San Francisco and Portland.

Krampus, Santa's terrifying companion

From horned monster to modern horror figure

A traditional Krampus is described as a horned, furry monster with hand-carved wooden masks, but this beast-version from Neustift im Stubaital in Austria resembles some figures from recent horror movies.

Krampus, Santa's terrifying companion

Alpine folklore: Krampus run

Tyrol in Austria has seen the founding of numerous village Krampus associations with up to 100 members each in the last few decades. In a rather modern approach to the tradition, the parade takes place without St. Nicholas throughout November and early December.

Krampus, Santa's terrifying companion

Dare to touch the devil

Not all Krampuses are scary though and these brave children in Salzburg, Austria, don't seem to be too intimidated by this monster.

Krampus, Santa's terrifying companion

Krampus custom in the Czech Republic

Parts of the Czech Republic also keep up with the folklore. In South Bohemia, a Krampus participant gets some rest after a parade. The knee protectors are signs for the undoubtedly boisterous run.

Krampus, Santa's terrifying companion

Woodcarver workshop in Bavaria

This woodcarver from Germany works on a new mask in his workshop in Marktschellenberg in Bavaria. The masks can be custom-made and there are no limits to how scary they can be. Real horns or red LED-lit eyes - these are just some options to make sure that children will be terrified.

Krampus, Santa's terrifying companion

Evil creatures versus evil winter spirits

The Krampus is not all that bad. Apart from instilling fear in naughty children, chasing away evil winter spirits is also one of its duties.