Monday, December 6, 2010

Happy St. Nick's Day!

Today, December 6th, is St. Nicholas Day.  St. Nicholas was a bishop who lived in the 4th century and through legend became the protector saint of children and the bestower of gifts to them.  Germans, and many other Europeans, celebrate his feast day by waiting for Nicholas to come the night before and leave them gifts and sweets.  Nicholas doesn’t come alone, however.  He brings Knecht Ruprecht, who wears a grim-reaper-style hooded cloak and carries a switch and a large burlap sack.  Knecht Ruprecht's job is to punish the naughty children by leaving them a switch or a rock or coal, to flog them, or if they were particularly bad, haul them away in his dark sack.  (What is with those old-world stories??  Wolves eating grandmas, witches getting thrown into ovens, children getting flogged on a saint’s day celebration?)

My mother, who grew up one of nine children on a small village farm in Germany, remembers they were TERRIFIED of Knecht Ruprecht as children.  When he and St. Nicholas knocked on the door (evidently two townsmen dressed up to do this for every family in the village) the children cried and ran behind their mother’s skirts in fear.  (This just doesn’t sound like a happy holiday to me.)  My mother will never forget the December she was about 6 years old, when St. Nicholas and Knecht Ruprecht came to the house.  They loomed over the children and quizzed them on their catechism and asked them to recite their prayers for their rewards of sweets, walnuts, and fruits.  Knecht Ruprecht grabbed one of my mom’s brothers (who had apparently stuttered through his prayers), stuffed him into his sack and carried him off into the cold, dark woods.  (Yeah, I know, nowadays this sadistic villager would be arrested, but back then . . . well, it was just the older generation’s way of showing some firm discipline, I guess.)

The moral of the story today is:
1)  thank God modern parents have learned that corporal punishment is NOT an effective means of discipline, and
2) more in relation to my blog, it’s relevant to be knowledgeable of others' customs and traditions when you travel.  St. Nicholas Day has been widely celebrated in Europe since the Middle Ages in honor of children.  The customs became a little muddled though when, during the Protestant Reformation, Germany’s Martin Luther decreed that the Catholic saints should not be glorified, but rather the Christ Child would bring the children gifts, not on December 6th but on Christmas Eve.  The Catholics at the time responded by keeping both traditions.  Today, Germans and other Europeans celebrate St. Nicholas Day and Christmas Eve in the manner of their own faith and custom.

1 comment:

  1. I have to send this post to Jason, as his family always celebrated St. Nick's night- that is, the leaving gifts part, not the flogging children part! Makes sense as his family is German descent on both sides.

    I can't get over your mom's childhood memory of her brother!


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