December 6: From Christian benefactor to commercial figure – the development of St. Nicholas




December 6th is the feast day of St. Nicholas and has been celebrated since the 9th century. From the historical figure of the bishop of Myra, emerged several different customs in honor of the saint. Some facts about the historical person can be granted: Nicholas was bishop of Myra in the 4th century, and died in Lycia, Asia Minor. He was buried there, but in 1087 his bones were transferred to Bari, Italy.

St. Nicholas is the patron of sailors and children. The legenda aurea illustrates the virtues of Nicolaus (nicos = victory; laos = people, meaning he would overcome common people and their faults; resp. from nitor = glory and laos, meaning the glory of the people, their good virtues). Jacobus de Voragine illustrates some events in the life of Nicolas, e.g. that he helped a father who was unable to provide dowry for his three daughters. Thus, his daughters would not be able to marry, and as a result had to become prostitutes. When Nicolas heard about the father’s troubles, he went to the man’s house at night and put three purses filled with gold through an open window. The secrecy should spare the family of the humiliation of being in need of charity.

The event which made him patron saint of children was not described by Jacobus de Voragine, but is a later adaptation: during a great famine, a butcher lured three children into his house, where he murdered them and planned to sell them as ham. Nicolas discovered the crime and revived the children.

Einkehrbrauch and Einlegebrauch – two popular customs

Out of these legends, some customs were developed to celebrate the saint. In the German-speaking area, there are two major common customs: The Einkehrbrauch (einkehren = stop off/stop by) and the Einlegebrauch (legen = to put into)

The Einkehrbrauch is the event where St. Nicholas goes from house to house to examine if the children have been good or disobedient. He will either reward or punish them. He is accompanied by a demonic figure, who executes the punishment for the bad children.

Another form of St. Nicholas-custom is the Einlegebrauch. Here, similarly to Santa Claus, St. Nicholas is never visible, but leaves small gifts or birches – depending on how good or bad the children have been – in the children’s shoes or baskets.

The custom of receiving gifts from St. Nicholas during the night first occurred in cloisters and monasteries among young pupils. Depending on how good or bad they had been, they received gifts. If they asked where the gifts came from, the answer simply was “from St. Nicholas”.  As this was a very effective form of disciplining children, it soon was installed in private houses, too. Additionally, feast processions appeared, where St. Nicholas and demonic figures appeared together.

Origin and development of St. Nicholas customs

There have been several explanations of the origin of these customs. Some scholars have seen a connection to pre-Christian pagan cult rites in the winter season. These rites often included  dressing up and making noise, a tradition continued in the St. Nicholas processions. Since there is neither material to proove this theory, nor this this cult rite was connected to St. Nicholas, this explanation is unsatisfying and has to be left aside.

It is probable that the customs emerged out of some monastery tradition of school boys, first occurring in Northern France. There, it was custom, in remembrance of the saving of the three murdered children, to elect one pupil to dress up like St. Nicholas and process through the streets. This event, which first occured in the 14th century, became very popular during the 15th century, as it resembled the Carnival, and thus provided another possibility for masquerades and exuberant celebration. That St. Nicholas is accompanied by devils and demons goes back to the fact that the most common masquerade in medieval Carnival was not – as it was some time later – the jester, but the devil. Further, the appearance of the bishop together with the devil can be explained through the Christian dualism of good and evil, and was thus seen as a proper juxtaposition.

From restriction to revival – St. Nicholas in Reformation and Counter-Reformation

During the Reformation, the Einlegebrauch was regarded very positively, but the fact that it was a saint who brought the gifts was not approved of. Martin Luther would rather have seen the connection to the Christ Child, a wish that would be fulfilled by the emergence of another gift-bringing figure: the Christkind (in the German-speaking area,  the “Christ Child” arrives at Christmas instead of Santa Claus).

The Counter-Reformation emphasizedthe pedagogical impact of St. Nicholas on children even more. During the weeks before his feast day, they had to document their prayers and show them to the saint.

However, the accompanying demons could not be eliminated. To visualize the dualism between good and bad, and to show the consequences of bad behavior through the accompanying devils, was an effective pedagogical procedure. It was, however, clear that these devil figures were subordinate to St. Nicholas. They had to remain quiet and were only allowed to act and punish after St. Nicholas has criticized the bad behavior of a child.

From Sinterklaas to Santa Claus – the transformation of St. Nicholas in modern times



The figure of Santa Claus came up in among the middle classes in 19th century Northern Germany. This figure emerged out of the Catholic and Evangelical images of St. Nicholas, although they are by no means identical. The painter Moritz von Schwind can be credited for inventing the image of Herrn Winter (Mr. Winter), with a long beard, coat, fur-boots and a Christmas tree in his hands. His red suit comes from the color of the bishop vestment, the fur coat and boots come from Servant Rupert. The new figure of Santa Claus (the name comes from the Dutch name for St. Nicholas, Sinterklaas) combines both the good and the evil figures, the bishop and the demon. He does not have a religious meaning any more, but a social function: he serves as a higher authority for children, whom they want to please through good behavior in order to receive benefits.

Later, the commercial industry, and especially Coca Cola, saw the potential of this figure and promoted the big, nice, old man with beard and red suit as central Christmas figure all over the world.


Flickr, Insomnia Cured Here, 2.0 Generic (CC BY-SA 2.0)


Eva Stachel



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