Olli’s Saturday School – Heiliger Nikolaus

Today is sort of a special day for the kids in Germany. It’s the 6th of December, or Nikolaustag.

Christmastradition here differs somewhat from that in the US or elsewhere.

Santa Claus, the guy from the Coca Cola trucks IS known exactly like that, thanks to the media and commercialising the crap out of everything popular, but over here, Santa Claus is actually Saint Nick. Or der Heilige Nikolaus.
A Catholic saint born in today’s Turkey around 280 AD he was imprisoned and tortured in 310 and later turned bishop. He gave the riches he had inherited to the poor, authorities didn’t like that a whole lot apparently.

In the night leading to the 6th of December Nikolaus visits children in Germany and puts little presents into their boots, usually some chocolate (often in the form of a little Nikolaus, so called Schokonikoläuse), nuts, clementines, gingerbread, cookies and maybe something else.
I guess that’s where the US custom of stuffing stockings with … stuff originated.

In many regions all over Europe (it’s not only a German thing) Nikolaus has a companion. Just like Doctor Who. Except it’s usually something scary to scare the naughty kids, rattle chains, beat them up with his birch or give them coal or rocks instead of presents.

Nikolaus is usually portrayed as a catholic bishop with a staff and robes plus matching headgear. His companion of many names, in my region known as Knecht Ruprecht (Knecht being word for a vassal, servant or farmhand) usually is a darkish figure in very plain jute clothes.

In many families and of course kindergardens and elementary schools a friendly neighbour, uncle or friend will dress up as Nikolaus, don a white beard and scare the crap out of the little beasties, telling them things from his golden books which he’s not supposed to know. Naughty or nice, eh? I’ve done that once, it was kinda fun. No, I don’t have pictures.

Sometimes this ends in hilarity, when a kid realizes: “Look, Nikolaus is wearing sneakers!” or “It’s not Nikolaus, it’s uncle Jim!”

Evolution of the custom created the figure called the Weihnachtsmann (Christmas-Man) which is pretty close to the US Santa Claus and even sometimes brings presents on Christmas Eve nowadays, which I personally think is a little sad, but that’s globalization for you.

And this is what he traditionally looks like in Germany!

Olli’s Saturday School – Happy German Halloween?

Kids these days probably wouldn’t believe it, but actually Germany does not have a Halloween tradition like the United States do.

All Saints’ Day or All Hallows is called Allerheiligen in Germany and one of the highest Catholic holidays. It’s also a public holiday here. No work. You’re welcome, protestants. ;-)

In some of our states or Bundesländer it is a socalled “silent holiday”. This means public parties, dances and events that do not conform to the serious character of this day are illegal on that day. When Halloween became popular in Germany, some of those rules where bent, in 2008 that was explicitly forbidden again.

My oldest memory of anything Halloween-related must have been in the early nineties when we got satellite TV at home and I started watching that animated Ghostbusters show. I vaguely remember an episode with the Jack-O’Lantern headed ghost Sam Hain.

The 90s is when sort of a German Halloween tradition started. That is we started copying what we saw in US tv shows and movies, I guess. US sitcoms like the Bill Cosby Show and Friends became popular in Germany and us kids obviously picked up a lot of US subcultural things. Like Halloween. German businesses were obviously keen to exploit that, started selling Halloween-themed candy, decorations and whatever else you could think of to commercialize a custom that was practically unknown up to now.

In the following two decades it became more and more prevalent, people started having Halloween-themed parties. Hey, lets put on ghost and witch costumes so we can get drunk in a room decorated with bats and skulls! Or let’s just get drunk and call it a Halloween party. Who cares?

The fun custom of carving stuff into pumpkins and crafting Halloween-themed decorations is something that’s occasionally done here now, but we don’t actually have a fancy name like Jack O’Lantern here. I’d have to check, but we probably call them Kürbislaterne (pumpkin lantern) if there’s an actual light in it, or maybe Kürbiskopf (pumpkin head). Or whatever description fits depending on what is carved into it. If anything.

According to common public sources, trick-or-treating on Halloween appeared in several European (and African) countries in 2010. I’d never noticed it up until last year when I saw kids walking around my neighborhood, costumed and lugging empty bags around.
I personally find that rather weird. Imagine someone oblivious of US customs opening their door to costumed kids screaming “Süßes sonst gibt’s Saures!

That is how “Trick or treat!” has been translated in movies, books, cartoons etc.

And it’s a near-literal translation. Süßes is our word for treats (literally something sweet)

Sauer means sour and Saures geben is a term meaning to give someone hell.

While Halloween as in decorations and costumes still is rather new and quite rare to encounter in most German streets, I assume the TV programme is pretty much the same as in the US or every country where US popculture has become a part of the media landscape.
There’s reruns of horror movies, marathons of the Simpsons’ Treehouse of Horror episodes, Halloween specials of popular sitcoms, the usual stuff.

The corporate scene has embraced it for a while now, and there’s been Halloween themed candy in stores for weeks now, cafés offering pumpkin spice flavored hot drinks, so it’s probably pretty much the same as in North America, except maybe not quite as … present.

And that’s pretty much it. Hope you have a happy Halloween next week, whatever that entails for you!