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Saint Nicholas

St. Nicholas’ Day was the highlight of Christmas in private families until the second half of the 16th century.

Origin and cult development

Nicholas was born in Patara, a Turkish port city in the then province of Lycia on the Ionian Sea. Myra in Lycia was his episcopal see. He died in 342 A.D. or 347 A.D. As early as the 6th century, a strong veneration of the saint began in the Eastern Church and spread throughout the Orient and Occident. In the Occident, the cult of St. Nicholas was not widely established until the 10th century, and the veneration of St. Nicholas also began in Germany, starting in the Rhineland. But it was the crusade movement, pilgrimages to St. Nicholas and his patronage as an emergency helper that established his universal veneration from the 11th century onwards, which also led to the development of a wide range of customs.

Nikolaus
Nikolaus

Nicholas as a gift bringer

It is the custom that he gives gifts to children on his saint’s day, December 6. In doing so the gift bringer always appeared in bishop’s attire with a mitre and crosier (staff), the colour of his garments is purple or white with gold. One of his attributes, a book, is often used as the “book of knowledge” when questioning children. He usually has a sack to transport the gifts, which an assistant, e.g. “Pelznickel”, carries. The precursors to this custom of giving gifts can be found in Medieval bishops’ plays where the legends of Nicholas are re-enacted. These developed first of all into the custom that a student dressed as Saint Nicholas stopped at the Medieval monastery schools as the children’s bishop (episcopus puerorum) before Christmas, questioned his fellow students and then gave them apples, nuts and sweets as gifts. In recent times the gift bringer is portrayed by adults.

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