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Saint Nicholas

Saint Nicholas, also known as Nikolaus in Germany and Sinterklaas in the Netherlands, is festivity for children related to the historical person Nicholas of Myra, who had a reputation for secret gift-giving. The American Santa Claus derives from it as it is just a degeneration of the Dutch word "Sinterklaas".

The history of the celebrations is complex and reflects the conflicts between Protestantism and Catholicism. Since Nicholas was a Catholic saint, Luther replaced the Catholic festivity with a "Christkind" (Christ child) celebration on Christmas Eve. The Nicholas celebrations still remain a part of tradition among many Protestants, however, albeit on a much lower scale than Christmas. The Protestant Netherlands, however, retain a much larger Saint Nicholas tradition. Many Catholics, on the other hand, have adopted Luther's Christkind.

Celebration in different countries

In Germany, Nikolaus is usually celebrated on a small scale. Many children put a boot outside their front doors on the night from the 5th to the 6th of December. St. Nicholas fills the boot, called Nikolaus-Stiefel, with gifts, and at the same time checks up on the children to see if they were good. If they were not, they will have charcoal in their boots instead. Sometimes a disguised Nikolaus also visits the children at school or in their homes and asks them if they "have been good" (occasionally checking a "book" for their record), handing out presents on a per-behavior basis. This has become more lenient in recent decades.

But for many children, Nikolaus also elicited fear, as he was often accompanied by the sinister figure of Knecht Ruprecht, who would threaten to beat or sometimes actually beat the children for perceived misbehavior. In Switzerland, he would threaten to put bad children in a sack and take them back to the Black Forest. These traditions were implemented more rigidly in Catholic countries such as Austria. In highly Catholic regions, the local priest was informed by the parents about their children's behavior and would then personally visit the homes in the traditional Christian garment and even threaten them with rod-beatings. In parts of Austria, "Krampusse", Nikolaus' helpers according to local tradition (in reality, typically juveniles from poor families), roamed the streets during the festival. They wore masks and dragged chains behind them; even occasionally hurling them towards children in their way. The "Krampusläufe" (Krampus runs) still exist, although perhaps less violent than in the past.

Celebration in the Netherlands

For small children in the Netherlands, St. Nicholas eve is even more important than Christmas (the Dutch celebrate Christmas Eve with Santa as well, but it is more for the older children and grownups).

On the evening of each 5th of December, Sanint Nicholas brings presents to every child which has been nice (in practice to all children). St. Nicholas, wearing a red bishop's dress including a red bishop's mitre rides, so the story goes, on a white horse over the rooftops of houses and is helped by his countless helpers, who have charcoal black faces and colorful Moorish dresses that date back two centuries. His helpers are called 'zwarte pieten' (black peters).

St. Nicholas himself has a long white beard, and holds a long gold colored staff with a fanciful curled top in his hand.

Each year St. Nicholas arrives by boat from 'Spain', and is then paraded through the streets of the town he arrives in (in actuality in each town of the Netherlands) welcomed by cheering children. His black peters throw hands full of candy and very small specially made hard cookies into the crowd. The children welcome him by singing traditional St. Nicholas songs. St. Nicholas also visits schools and shopping malls.

In the weeks before the 5th of December children can put their shoes in the hallway (traditionally before the stove) with a carrot or some hay in it for St. Nicholas' horse, in the evening, and will find a piece of candy (a piece of marzipan, an animal made out of sugar or a chocolate frog) in their shoes. Traditionally it was said that Black Peter would enter the house through the chimney, which also explained his black face and hands, and would leave a bundle of sticks (called "roe") in the shoe instead of candy when the child had not been nice. Children are also told that when they behave very badly they will be put into the sack black peter carries the presents in and will be taken back to Spain.

At the evening (or late afternoon) of the 5th of December children at home sing a song and suddenly the doorbell rings, and when they go to the door a gunny sack full of presents is found on the doorstep. Alternatively (some improvisation is often called for) the parents 'hear a sound coming from the attic' and then the presents are 'found there.

Typical presents include the first letter of the child's name made out of chocolate, a figurine of St. Nicholas made out of chocolate and wrapped in painted aluminum foil, and colored marzipan shaped into fruit, an animal or some other object. Also popular are coins and cigarettes made out of chocolate. However, the European Parliament has issued a recommendation to ban chocolate cigarettes since they might promote future real smoking.

Celebration in the United States

See Santa Claus.

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