Wer ist Sankt Nikolaus? Who is Saint Nicholas indeed? Every Christmas there are questions about “Belsnickle,” “Pelznickel,” “Tannenbaum,” or some other German-American Christmas custom. Since the Germans and the Dutch brought many of their customs to America directly or indirectly, we need to look at Europe first.
Each region or locality throughout the German-speaking parts of Europe has its own Christmas customs, Weihnachtsmänner (Santas), and Begleiter (escorts). Here we'll review just a sampling of the various regional variations, most of them pagan and Germanic in origin.01of 08
Santa in German-Speaking CountriesAvid Creative, Inc. / Getty Images
Across the German-speaking region of Europe there are many kinds of Santa Clauses with many different names. Despite their many names, they are all basically the same mythic character but few of them have anything to do with the real Saint Nicholas (Sankt Nikolaus or der heilige Nikolaus), who was probably born around A.D. 245 in the port city of Patara in what we now call Turkey.
Very little solid historical evidence exists for the man who later became the Bishop of Myra and the patron saint of children, sailors, students, teachers, and merchants. He is credited with several miracles and his feast day is Dec. 6, which is the main reason he is connected with Christmas. In Austria, parts of Germany, and Switzerland, der heilige Nikolaus (or Pelznickel) brings his gifts for children on Nikolaustag, Dec. 6, not Dec. 25. Nowadays, St. Nicholas Day (der Nikolaustag) on Dec. 6 is a preliminary round for Christmas.
Although Austria is mostly Catholic, Germany is almost evenly divided between Protestants and Catholics (along with some minority religions). So in Germany, there are both Catholic (katholisch) and Protestant (evangelisch) Christmas customs. When Martin Luther, the great Protestant Reformer, came along he wanted to get rid of the Catholic elements of Christmas. To replace Sankt Nikolaus (Protestants don't have saints!) Luther introduced das Christkindl (an angel-like Christ Child) to bring Christmas gifts and reduce the importance of Saint Nicholas. Later this Christkindl figure would evolve into der Weihnachtsmann (Father Christmas) in Protestant regions and even across the Atlantic to mutate into the English term “Kris Kringle.”
Besides the Catholic and Protestant aspects, Germany is a country of many regions and regional dialects thus making the question of who Santa Claus is even more complicated. There are many German names (and customs) for Nikolaus and his escorts. On top of that, there are both religious and secular German Christmas customs as that American Santa Claus has really gotten around!
Regional German Santa Clauses
In order to answer the question "Who is the German Santa Claus?" you need to look at different dates and the various regions of German-speaking Europe.
First there are the dozens of names used for the German Father Christmas or Santa Claus. Four main names (Weihnachtsmann, Nickel, Klaus, Niglo) are spread out from the north to the south, from west to east. Then there are much more local or regional names.
These names can even vary within a region from locality to locality. Some of these characters are good, while others are bad going so far as to frighten little children and even whip them with switches (rare in modern times). Most of them are associated more with Dec. 6 (St. Nicholas Day) than with Dec. 24 or 25.
Male: Ale Josef, Ascheklas, Aschenmann, Bartel/Bartl, Beelzebub, Belsnickel, Belsnickle (Amer.), Belznickel, Boozenickel, Bornkindl, Bullerklaas/Bullerklas, Burklaas, Butz, Butzemärtel, Düsseli, Düvel, Hans Muff, Hans Trapp, Heiliger Mann, Kinnjes, Klaasbur, Klapperbock, Klas Bur, Klaubauf, Klaus, Klawes, Klos, Krampus, Leutfresser, Niglo, Nikolo, Pelzebock, Pelzebub, Pelzemärtel, Pelznickel, Pelzpercht, Pelzprecht, Pulterklas, Rauklaas, Rugklaas, Ruhklas, Rumpelklas, Rupsack, Samichlaus, Satniklos, Schimmelreiter, Schmutzli, Schnabuck, Semper, Storrnickel, Strohnickel, Sunner Klaus, Swatter Pitt, Zink Muff, Zinterklos, Zwarte Pitt, Zwarter Piet
Female: Berchte/Berchtel, Budelfrau, Buzebergt, Lutzl, Percht, Pudelfrau, Rauweib, Zamperin
Nikolaustag/5. Dezember/Feast Day of St. Nicholas
On the night of Dec. 5 (in some places, the evening of Dec. 6), in small communities in Austria and the Catholic regions of Germany, a man dressed as der Heilige Nikolaus (St. Nicholas, who resembles a bishop and carries a staff) goes from house to house to bring small gifts to the children. Accompanying him are several ragged looking, devil-like Krampusse, who mildly scare the children. Although Krampus carries eine Rute (a switch), he only teases the children with it, while St. Nicholas hands out small gifts to the children.
In some regions, there are other names for both Nikolaus and Krampus (Knecht Ruprecht in Germany). Sometimes Krampus/Knecht Ruprecht is the good guy bringing gifts, equal to or replacing St. Nicholas. As early as 1555, St. Nicholas brought gifts on Dec. 6, the only “Christmas” gift-giving time during the Middle Ages, and Knecht Ruprecht or Krampus was a more ominous figure.
Nikolaus and Krampus don't always make a personal appearance. In some places today children still leave their shoes by the window or the door on the night of Dec. 5. They awaken the next day (Dec. 6) to discover small gifts and goodies stuffed into their shoes left by St. Nicholas. This is similar to the American Santa Claus custom, although the dates are different. Also similar to American custom, the children may leave a wish list for Nikolaus to pass on to the Weihnachtsmann for Christmas.04of 08
Heiliger Abend/24. Dezember/Christmas Eve
Christmas Eve is now the most important day of the German celebration, but there's no Santa Claus coming down the chimney (and no chimney!), no reindeer (the German Santa rides a white horse), and no waiting for Christmas morning!
Families with young children often keep the living room closed off, revealing the Christmas tree to the excited youngsters only at the last minute. The decorated Tannenbaum is the center of the Bescherung, the exchanging of gifts, which takes place on Christmas Eve, either before or after dinner.
Neither Santa Claus nor St. Nicholas brings children their gifts for Christmas. In most regions, the angelic Christkindl or the more secular Weihnachtsmann is the bringer of gifts that don't come from other family members or friends.
In religious families, there also may be readings of Christmas-related passages from the Bible. Many people attend midnight mass (Christmette) where they sing carols, much as was done on the occasion of the first Christmas Eve performance of “Stille Nacht” (“Silent Night”) in Oberndorf, Austria in 1818.05of 08
Knecht Ruprecht is a term widely used in many parts of Germany. (In Austria and Bavaria he is known as Krampus.) Also called rauer Percht and many other names, Knecht Ruprecht was once the evil Nikolaus-Begleiter (St. Nick's escort), who punished bad children, but now he is often a more kind fellow gift-giver.
Ruprecht's origins are definitely Germanic. The Nordic god Odin (Germanic Wotan) was also known as “Hruod Percht” (“Ruhmreicher Percht”) from which Ruprecht got his name. Wotan aka Percht ruled over battles, fate, fertility, and the winds. When Christianity came to Germany, St. Nicholas was introduced, but he was accompanied by the Germanic Knecht Ruprecht. Today both can be seen at parties and festivities around Dec. 6.06of 08
Pelznickel is the fur-clad Santa of the Palatinate (Pfalz) in northwestern Germany along the Rhine, the Saarland, and the Odenwald region of Baden-Württemberg. The German-American Thomas Nast (1840-1902) was born in Landau in der Pfalz (not the Bavarian Landau). It is said that he borrowed at least a couple of features from the Palatine Pelznickel he knew as a child in creating the image of the American Santa Claus-the fur trim and boots.
In some North American German communities, Pelznickel became “Belsnickle.” (The literal translation of Pelznickel is “fur-Nicholas.”) The Odenwald Pelznickel is a bedraggled character who wears a long coat, boots, and a big floppy hat. He carries a sack full of apples and nuts that he gives to the children. In various areas of the Odenwald, Pelznickel also goes by the names of Benznickel, Strohnickel, and Storrnickel.07of 08
Der Weihnachtsmann is the name for Santa Claus or Father Christmas in most of Germany. The term used to be confined mostly to the northern and mostly Protestant areas of Germany, but has spread across the land in recent years. Around Christmastime in Berlin, Hamburg, or Frankfurt, you'll see Weihnachtsmänner on the street or at parties in their red and white costumes looking a lot like an American Santa Claus. You can even rent a Weihnachtsmann in most larger German cities.
The term “Weihnachtsmann” is a very generic German term for Father Christmas, St. Nicholas, or Santa Claus. The German Weihnachtsmann is a fairly recent Christmas tradition having little if any religious or folkloric background. In fact, the secular Weihnachtsmann only dates back to around the mid-19th century. As early as 1835, Heinrich Hoffmann von Fallersleben wrote the words to “Morgen kommt der Weihnachtsmann,” still a popular German Christmas carol.
The first image depicting a bearded Weihnachtsmann in a hooded fur mantle was a woodcut (Holzschnitt) by the Austrian painter Moritz von Schwind (1804-1871). Von Schwind's first 1825 drawing was entitled “Herr Winter.” A second woodcut series in 1847 bore the title “Weihnachtsmann” and even showed him carrying a Christmas tree, but still had little resemblance to the modern Weihnachtsmann. Over the years, the Weihnachtsmann became a rough mixture of St. Nicholas and Knecht Ruprecht. A 1932 survey found that German children were split about evenly along regional lines between believing in either the Weihnachtsmann or the Christkind but today a similar survey would show the Weihnachtsmann winning out in almost all of Germany.08of 08
Thomas Nast's Santa Claus
Many aspects of the American Christmas celebration were imported from Europe and Germany in particular. The Dutch may have given him his English name, but Santa Claus owes most of his current image to an award-winning German-American cartoonist.
Thomas Nast was born in Landau in der Pfalz (between Karlsruhe and Kaiserslautern) on Sept. 27, 1840. When he was six years old, he arrived in New York City with his mother. (His father arrived four years later.) After studying art, Nast became an illustrator for Frank Leslie's Illustrated Newspaper at the age of 15. By the time he was 19, he was working at Harper's Weekly and later traveled to Europe on assignment for other publications (and paid a visit to his hometown in Germany). Soon he was a famous political cartoonist.
Today Nast is best remembered for his biting cartoons aimed at "Boss Tweed" and as the creator of several well-known U.S. icons: Uncle Sam, the Democratic donkey, and the Republican elephant. Less well known is Nast's contribution to the image of Santa Claus.
When Nast published a series of drawings of Santa Claus for Harper's Weekly each year from 1863 (in the midst of the Civil War) to 1866, he helped create the kinder, plumper, more fatherly Santa we know today. His drawings show influences of the bearded, fur-cloaked, pipe-smoking Pelznickel of Nast's Palatinate homeland. Later color illustrations by Nastare are even closer to today's Santa Claus image, showing him as a toy maker.