Knecht Ruprecht, Saint Nicolaus and Santa Claus:
The development of German Christmas Customs
from Pagan times to Christianity and beyond
(c) Guinevra 2006
We all know about the 12 holy nights. But the customs connected with them are very different. In England I saw for each of those 12 nights love verses.
The German custom is very different. The 12 holy nights were dedicated to Wotans wild hunting’s. And that goes back to pagan times, but people feared the wrath of Wotan far into Christianity, so this custom and belief lingered till recent times. Even in my family it was followed so long my grandmother lived, and that was until far into the second half of the 20th century.
Wotan had all knights who dyed during a fight taken up to Walhalla by the Valkyries. There they lived together with the Nordic Gods and Goddesses (the Asen) and the war maidens (Valkyries) the same life as they were used to on earth: Feasting, drinking, combats and all the merriments that was enjoyed during their lifetime on earth, only at a more grand scale and they were immortal. But they all knew, they would have to fight Ragnaröck at the end of times, the last fight of Good against Evil. The outcome of this fight was and is uncertain, pagan Gods were not all-knowing as in later times the Christian God proclaimed for himself. All these knights enjoyed Walhalla with the knowledge, that in this last fight they would perish.
German Christmas customs are connected with one of these knights. So Knecht Ruprecht, a rather stern and serious man, brought gifts at Holy Eve to good children, the bad ones received some hits with the twig of a tree.
Legends tell us how that happened. One of the greatest merriments for Wotan and his knights was the yearly big wild hunt during the 12 holy nights. And nothing was permitted to block their ways, so the putting up of washing lines during these 12 nights and days was forbidden because the horses could stumble over these lines. I remember that in our family we never washed anything during those 12 holy nights, even when our lines were in the attic and not like in past times on poles at the back of a house or at the village green. After the war that was a real challenge, as we had really not enough clothes to change, when they were dirty. But somehow we managed. Even in these modern times it was calling bad luck into a home, if one washed and put up the wash for drying. And to be honest, I follow that custom till today. I have a washing machine but no dryer, so I dry my wash on lines in the bathroom, and I would never dare to do that in these 12 nights.
I told already, that any man, who died in a fight, was taken to Walhalla. Men who died in their beds of old age or disease went into Hel's empire that could be compared with the Greek underworld and was a sad place to stay. So most of the inhabitants of Walhalla were knights. But as each man who died in a fight went to Walhalla and in those cruel times also serfs or craftsmen died fighting for their homes or against the enemies of their Lords or the attack of marauders, who were numerous, so they too were fetched by the Valkyries to Walhalla.
For one year’s wild hunt during the 12 holy nights, Wotan included a man named Ruprecht. I suppose he was no knight. (The word Knecht means serf in English). As he did not enjoyed the hunt very much, he fell behind ever more and so lost Wotan and his hunters completely.
He more stumbled than rode forward and felt miserable. It was a harsh winter, without the excitement of the hunt he began to freeze, asked himself how he ever could find the way back to Walhalla and how Wotan would react to his failing during the hunt. When his misery was nearly unbearable he suddenly saw a light from a lonely small farmhouse. He looked into the window and saw a fire in the stove, a young couple – the husband mending some farm gear, the wife preparing a meal - and a small boy playing with some of the logs, that were ready besides the stove to feed the fire.
The peaceful scene was luring him and he entered the small house. Of course the couple was terrible frightened. They knew he could be only one of Wotan's hunters, as nobody dared to go outside during these 12 nights. But the small boy was not terrified, but excited. The hunter looked gorgeous to him: The armour, the weapons and the unearthly power he radiated. So like any child, he was attracted. Ruprecht politely told the couple, that he had lost his way, was cold and hungry and asked if he could stay for a time to recover. Still afraid the couple invited him to share the fire and their meagre meal and the hunter accepted grateful.
But the night was long and Ruprecht got bored. So he took his hunting knife and a log and began to carve: horses and wagons and knights and gave his finished work to the boy, who never before in his life had a toy. Maybe Ruprecht was a carpenter before he joined Wotan and his knights at Walhalla.
The couple forgot their fright, tea was cooked and they spent together some amiable hours. They as well as Ruprecht just forgot about Wotan.
Suddenly the door was pushed open, Wotan stood at the threshold, full of wrath. Cold wind blasted into the room, horses whined, knights shouted and the couple fell onto their knees, awaiting and fearing the punishment for not being asleep during the night as was demanded too, so that nobody could see Wotan and his hunters.
But the hunt was good; Wotan was in high spirits and intended to go back to Walhalla as quick as possible, so that the spoil of the hunt could give them all a splendid feast. He came only to fetch back his lost hunter, Ruprecht.
Wotan was a just God most of the time and he had known, that Ruprecht was not really happy in Walhalla, feeling lost among all those fierce knights. That was the reason; Wotan had decided to take him along for that years hunt.
So he looked over the room, saw the frightened couple, the excited child surrounded by his carved toys and Ruprecht, who had just began to carve another horse, with a happy smile on his face. The first smile Wotan had seen from Ruprecht.
I told already, Wotan was most of the time a just God so he told Ruprecht, that he will have a different task in the future. He will give him a craft shop and for 1 year he has time to fashion toys for children. putting them into bags and during the holy nights he has to go from home to home and distribute the toys from his bag to children, who had behaved good during the year, the others were to be punished with some light hits from a tree’s twig and than had to prove that they had learned at last something in the past year and after that were to receive their gifts too.
Till today, the father or another family member in some families dress up as Knecht Ruprecht and hear the poems, songs, music, children perform under the Christmas tree and will get a slight hit with a twig, if some errors are made, before they receive their gifts.
I remember all of our families Holy Eves like this.
So this was the custom in Germany for many centuries. Christianity came rather late into these parts of the world and even than pagan customs lingered on in the Nordic countries, taken over as part of Christmas.
Holy Eve is the main day of Christmas in Germany till to day. Christian people attend a festive church service and after this the Christmas tree is lightened, children are admitted into the closed room with the Christmas tree, but cannot even look or opening their gifts before they give proof that they have learned something in the past year by singing a song, recite a poem or play on a music instrument.
And as I told already, in some families Knecht Ruprecht till to day is *visiting* and presents the children’s gifts.
This custom, added with some different Christian ones were followed generally in the Nordic part of Germany till some decades after WW II, when American ones by aggressive marketing and greedy merchants were slowly forced on us.
But many families, mostly the Lutheran ones, follow these Christmas customs till to day. Northern people are very stubborn, they were late in taking over Christianity, but one of the first to accept Luther's teachings, that was more to their taste than Roman Catholicism.
What was added by Christianity to these customs, especial in catholic parts of Germany, and how it came that we have Saint Nicolaus too, I will tell in Part II of this story.
A picture of Knecht Ruprecht can be found in the book *Struwwelpeter* from the children doctor Heinrich Hoffmann (1809-1894). To help the suffering children in his hospital ward, he wrote and painted a children book, and in one of the stories Knecht Ruprecht played a role. That book is loved by children till today.
Saint Nicolaus Day, 6th December, is a day, eagerly awaited by children in most German provinces. Before they go to sleep in the evening of the 5th, children put their careful cleaned shoes besides the door of the house or flat they live in. And I think no child ever oversleeps in the morning of the 6th of December, because they are impatient to know, what Saint Nicolaus has put into their shoes. Of course, these are small gifts, sweets mostly, of the special kind that is eaten only during Christmas times, and some small toys maybe. That has to fit into the shoes.
The custom is not limited to children. In many families all put out their shoes to be filled. 1 shoe for every person. Since the near past one can by special Nicolaus boots, made out of different material, from cardboard to porcelain. They are stored with the Christmas decorations and used only for this one special day.
The custom and the legends about Saint Nicolaus developed gradually, based on the life stories of 2 bishops with the Name of Nicolaus, both leading a truly saintly life and especial caring for the poor people in their surrounding. Folklore and miracle reports put them together and in peoples minds and believes they melted together into one person, despite both are in the official Saints calendar with their different biographies and about 200 years difference in their life times.
The first bishop Saint Nicolaus lived about 270 – 345 BC in Myra (today Demre in Turkey); he is too one of the 14 helpers in need and patron of seamens. Many tales about miracles, caring and helping are connected with him, but his real life is unknown and shrouded in mystery. Already 50 years after his death his fame as miracle worker spread, especial in the Eastern Church, that developed later into the Greek Orthodox Church.
He maybe died on the 6th of December as listed in the Saints calendar, and so this day evolved into our custom.
He existed as a historical person as well as bishop Nicolaus of Pinara in Lycia, who died on 10th December 564. The miracles told about him happened during the life of emperor Justinian (527-565) who ruled the Byzantine Empire successful, when West Rome already had broken down, conquered and sacked by barbarians.
Some of the legends tell about Saint Nicolaus love and caring for children, of saving a town from famine, of saving 3 young girls, giving each of them a golden ball, so they could avoid prostituting themselves to earn their dowry, as their father had demanded of them. He too resurrected a young man after he drowned and helped communities to prosper.
There is no possibility anymore to say precise, who of the two bishops did which miracle. Many countries made Saint Nicolaus patron of very different and divergent things and works. In Greece and all the Slavic countries, including Russia, Saint Nicolaus is the most worshipped Saint besides the Madonna.
East Rome with Byzanz as capital already formed about this time their own kind of Christianity and as both bishops lived and dyed inside that Empire, their worship is concentrated more in the Greek and Russian Orthodox Church.
Since the middle of the 8th century Saint Nicolaus acquired fame inside the Roman Catholic Church too, namely in Italy. So seamen from Bari in Italy robbed the tomb in Myra in April 1087 and brought Saint Nicolaus’ body to Bari, where Pope Urban II reburied him in the crypt of the Basilica San Nicola. So Bari evolved into the goal of pious pilgrims and the town profited hugely.
The cult of Saint Nicolaus spread transalpine through Europe, sponsored mainly through Teophanu, the Byzantine wife of the German emperor Otto II. Especially in merchant towns Saint Nicolas gained fame, as he was worshipped here too as protector of merchants as well as seamen. Till today about 4oo catholic churches in Germany are named after him, an exceptional famous one in Berlin, Capital of Prussia and now of Germany, where a whole quarter surrounding this beautiful church was called Nikolai-Viertel after this Saint. This is one of the oldest parts of my hometown.
Even the Russian town Minsk asked for a small relic of his body and received the gift this year from Switzerland. Which of the Saints body that came from is not so clear anymore. As I told, the legends melted together and made one person out of the 2 bishops.
The traditional exchanging of gifts at Christmas time is based on all the tales about Saint Nicolaus. It started about the 12th century around the 5th or 6th of December.
After Luther’s reformation some of the customs changed. Luther himself was against that tradition and replaced Saint Nicolaus with the Christ-Child as gift bringer, who too had this task in some parts of Christianity already. Luther eliminated Saint Nicolas as concurrence for Jesus and switched the date for the bringing of gifts to Holy Night, 24th of December. At first that happened only in Lutheran provinces and countries. The Roman Catholic Church with regional exceptions kept Saint Nicolaus. But even Luther could not prevent the continued worship of Saint Nicolaus, so the date of 6th December was given over to the custom of small gifts in 1 shoe for children.
In the middle of the 19th century his dresses were changed. From the saintly bishop with mitre and bishops wand, he now was clothed into a long coat with a kind of night-cup. That was partly based on a painting of Moritz von Schwind, called *Mr. Winter*.
A later painting, a caricature, done by Thomas Nast with the title *Merry old Santa Claus* was published at 1st January 1881 by Harpers weekly.
Christmas in Germany has more to offer than St. Nicolaus day with gifts put into shoes and Holy Night for another day of exchanging gifts with the pretext for children, that either the Christ-Child or Knecht Ruprecht brought these presents.
The 4 weeks before Christmas are called Advent (arrival) and starting with the 4th Sunday before Holy Night some special customs aroused too.
For these 4 weeks the Christian Church advised fasting, not so harsh as before Easter, but nonetheless it was done out of custom. So the Sundays were special, as for these the fasting was not valid.
In nearly every household we have an Advent Wraith; this is braided out of fir and adorned with ribbons, small Christmas balls, small angel figures etc. Each one adorns it to the own taste, even ready made bought ones, real fir or artificial ones, provide us with a real astonishing variety. The main feature that share all of them, are 4 thick candles. Starting with the 4th Sunday before Christmas family and/or friends gather for a small coffee- or tea party. Christmas music is played on the recorder, or if possible, there are songs or the playing of instruments. During this time one of the candles is lightened and burns for the time of the gathering. At the 3rd Sunday before Christmas the same happens, but besides relighting the first candle, a second one is lightened and both burn till the gathering ends. And so on over the second Sunday till the last, when all 4 candles are burned down.
In the last years one can buy equal wide but different high candles, so that at the 4th Sunday all have the same height and can burn out. The exceptions are the provinces Bavaria and Thuringia. There Christmas Pyramids are used; they have at the top 4 wings a scene from carved wood in one or two levels and 4 candles as well. The smoke of the candles turns the wings and so the whole pyramid is turning around. Some even play a Christmas song. These pyramids are hand carved, very expensive and often handed down over generations already. These very old pyramids are today very sought after collector items.
Another item we have in Advents time is an Advent calendar. In the past it was an elaborate printed piece of cardboard with a winter scene and 24 small numbered doors. For each day one door. These were gifts for children. Beginning with the 1st of December the first door was opened and behind them was a small scene, from winter mostly or something already a little bit connected with Christmas. Each day another of the doors was opened and another picture displayed. On the 24th December, Holy Night, the biggest window in the middle of that calendar, No. 24, displayed a nativity scene. This kind of calendars is very seldom now and mostly reprints of old ones, from about the turn of the 19th to the 20th century. Today’s calendars of course have not only pictures behind the windows. The calendar is thick; a box in reality and behind each window is a sweet or another small gift. Children today are not anymore content with looking at a beautiful picture.
Last year I found a very special reprint, a folding out calendar, with angels, Saints, animals behind each window, hanging on a cord and a kind of stand-up-3-D-nativity for No. 24, the Holy Night. We gave it to my partner’s granddaughter, and like in past times it is kept with the old Christmas ornaments to be used once more in the coming years.
And some more information you maybe not know. The first Christmas tree, without candles or adornments was used in Germany shortly after the 30 years religious wars ended. Later that custom spread, the first adornments were sweets or cookies, later in Lauscha in the province Thuringia a glass manufacture began to produce the first glass ornaments. The old ones are very sought after and fetch very high prices now. But even the products of today from Lauscha are very expensive, the glass ornaments are hand-blown and hand-painted.
In many families, where no bombs destroyed the homes during the war, these ornaments are handed down from generation to generation like the pyramids.
The first Christmas tree in Berlin was put up by Bettina von Arnim in her Salon, where the educated society met regularly for interesting discussions.
During a visit in the home of her husband in Germany, Queen Victoria saw one of these trees and brought the custom over to England. So it spread over the whole world, but the origin was in Germany.
Something more had its origin in Germany. The famous Christmas Song:*Silent Night, Holy Night*. For the Christmas Service in a small and poor village church in Bavaria the priest, Joseph Moor, born 1817 near Salzburg, and his organ player, Gruber, born 1787, looked for something special that would cost no money. So the priest wrote a poem and the organ player composed the music to that. They just intended to have a special song for their service and never dreamed that these simple words and melody would first spread over Germany into any church and home and from there with immigrants and visitors out into the whole world.
I intend to tell you now, how a pagan legend and the lives of 2 truly saintly bishops were used or better misused by Coca Cola to change folk legends and folk customs into a big advertisement hoax.
I told about German customs, but I know each European country had and in rural places has till to day similar or related customs. Town populations and of course shop owners, big or small, are very eager in merchandizing any feast to enhance their profits.
The population of rural parts in any country in contrast cling to their old customs and habits more fiercely. The question one has to ask is, how long will they or their children are able to protect all these different feasts against the greed of all the international companies, who made over each feast, being it local or international, into one mix in the big cauldron of money making.
It is so profitable to delete local customs, so that the entire world will buy only a limited variety of festive ornaments and foods for each feast and not anymore the manifold local specialities.
1931 designed Haddon Sandblom for the advertisement of Coca Cola an ugly fat grinning Santa Claus, based on Thomas Nast's caricature *Merry old Santa Claus*, published 1st January 1881 in Harpers Weekly. All following pictures are based on Sandblom’s design.
Knecht Ruprecht, the serious knight of Wotan, who knew he would have to endure the last fight of Good against Evil, Ragnarök, not sure if he will live to see the better and peaceful world, that in this pagan legend will replace our war ridden civilisation after a hart won victory; 2 truly saintly bishops, famous for their good works and helping people to overcome poverty, for miracles during their lifetime and more miracles after their death, are now replaced by a caricature created for the sole purpose, to attract more customers for a soft drink.
And it did not stopped with that. In the wake of the American occupation troops came the supermarkets and department stores, which destroyed not only our shops but even more customs, which belonged to our Christmas.
It is surely not known in other countries, especial overseas, that in Germany nearly all shops are closed on Sundays. Exceptions for a limited sale of some merchandizes are only in airports, train statio
ns and petrol stations for gas.
In connection with this law we had another Christmas custom. During Advent time the last 3 Sundays before Christmas, shops were permitted to open from noon to 8 p.m. These Sundays were called:
Copper Sunday, Silver Sunday and Golden Sunday.
The most important one was Copper Sunday, 3 weeks before Christmas. The reason? Another custom that was never broken for almost 1 century. Copper Sunday was the first day before Christmas, when shops adorned their shop windows for Christmas and began to sell all Christmas related items. I remember as a child and even as a young woman, I could barely await that day. At noon, some minutes before opening time, shadows and curtains were drawn back from the shop windows and we could admire the fanciful Christmas decorations each shop had. There was no merchandize in these windows, only beautiful decorations, as each shop tried to outshine the neighbour shop. There were old and cherished nativities in the windows, fairy tale scenes, Knecht Ruprecht, angels, the precious glass Christmas balls and figurines from Lauscha, placed on a small or big Christmas tree, depending on the windows size, together with electric candles. Real trees, nobody of us had ever seen a fake one at that time. All these decorations belonged to the shop owners, who kept them safe year after year. This too was the first day when it was permitted to sell all the special Christmas sweets: Spekulatius, Dominosteine, Printen, heart sized Lebkuchen, chocolates formed like Knecht Ruprecht, wrapped in glitter paper simulating his clothes, Lebkuchen too formed like Ruprecht with a picture of him pasted on that cookie and Dresdner Stollen. (Sorry, there is no possibility to translate the names of these sweets).
Most bakeries made their own. Expensive shops bought them in Nuremberg, the town that is famous for the best tasting Christmas sweets and equal famous for the best Christmas market in Germany.
Of course, the Christmas markets opened on Copper Sunday too. Each village, each town, small or big, had its own Christmas market. Advent songs were played in the shops and at the market.
The real Christmas-Songs like *Silent Night, Holy Night* and some more, were only played at Holy Night and the 2 following days.
That was all really like heaven, the first bite into a Spekulatius after one year of abstinence, all the beautiful things to see and the careful choice, what to buy, because money was scare, but anyone had saved to buy something on these 3 Sundays.
And the Christmas market, filled with music, stalls with more of the sweets added by mulled wine or tea for the children. Old merry go rounds with hand carved and hand paintend horses and coaches, dragons and other fancy animals, hand organs, little games to win small Christmas gifts, and the stall owners let the children win, even if they were not so lucky to have a hit with a ball or at another game.
I loved Christmas
And now I hate it!
The change came slowly, but each year we lost more. Christmas sweets fill the shelves of Supermarkets already in the first days of September, window decorations from plastic, which goes into the trash. But most supermarkets have pasted their windows closed with advertisements, they have no space anymore for a beautiful display. Christmas songs blaring already in November so loud, one cannot understand one word anymore. That fat Santa Claus is everywhere, pictures of him pasted besides the merchandize he tries to lure people to buy.
Students in disguise, with cushions to make them fat, trying to herd people into supermarkets and department stores, all kind of Kitsch decorated with Santa Claus, even bed linen.
When Christmas is there at last, adults as well as children are fed up with all of it.
No wonder so many Germans now travel over Christmas into warm countries, preferable Islamic ones, to escape that nightmare, which once was a cherished and eager awaited holy feast.
We were never used to such aggressive marketing and advertising. It came above us in the wake of the American occupation troops. Why could they not keep their customs for themselves instead of destroying ours year by year ever more?
Christmas is turned over into a big money making event to feed the profit greed of shareholders.
Last week I heard a woman telling her friend, she would like to put a bomb into each supermarket, so that we can get back our small friendly shops, which were besides selling what we needed, meeting places of the neighbourhood.
I was tempted to agree!