Of Advent Calendars, St Nicholas and Other Seasonal Customs

December 6th is St. Nicholas Day, which is still a pretty big deal in Northern Germany and even bigger than Christmas in the Netherlands.

I’m too old for Nicholas sweets and presents and have been for almost twenty years now – though a friend of mine still got presents for Easter and St. Nicholas Day from her family at the ripe age of 28 and would have been very annoyed if not. She may still demand presents for all I know – I lost contact with her years ago.

Talking of things I’m really too old for, this year I actually have a chocolate advent calendar for the first time in twenty years or so. And I don’t just have one advent calendar but two. However, they were both presents, from an accounting firm and a pizza service I’ve never even patronized respectively. The pizza service advent calendar is very much like those I remember from my childhood, with little chocolate figurines. The accounting firm calendar is from Hachez, which means that it’s classier (no chocolate figurines, just tiny wrapped bars of chocolate) and that the chocolate is really good.

One custom I have always liked about St Nicholas Day in Northern Germany is the so-called Nikolauslaufen (another explanation is here), which is basically trick or treating with a seasonal theme. Kids dress up as St. Nicholas, go from house to house, sing seasonal songs or recite poems and get a treat in return. The traditional treats are oranges, tangerines and nuts, nowadays it’s mostly chocolate and candy. My Mom told me that in the very poor postwar years, the kids were often given useful household items such as needles, thread, shoehorns, etc…

I always buy Kinder Surprise eggs to hand out to the neighbourhood kids, because everybody loves Kinder Surprise eggs. Well, everybody except for this nutty consumer safety blog, which thinks Kinder Surprise egg are some kind of terrible danger and urges people to report import shops selling the eggs in the US. The comments are priceless BTW, particularly the one about how guns are legal in the US, yet something as harmless and enjoyable as Kinder Surprise eggs is not. And for the record, I grew up with Kinder Surprise eggs and never choked on them nor know anyone who did.

This year I got eleven Nicholas Day kids at my door, ranging in age from barely able to walk to early teens. That’s a pretty normal year. In bad years, e.g. when the weather is terrible, I only get four or five, in very good years I get over twenty. The kids usually come in groups between two and five, but once I also got a whole sports team (girl’s basketball I think) of twelve kids. One year I ran out of sweets and had to hand out my own chocolate supply, at one point picking a chocolate bar containing alcohol from a kid’s bag with “Oops, that’s the wrong one.” Not that anyone would freak out over a chocolate bar containing minute amounts of alcohol being given to a kid in Germany, but it’s still inappropriate. In the US, a chocolate bar with alcohol finding its way into a kids’ bag would probably cause a massive moral panic. Hell, they’d probably panic about Kinder Surprise eggs being handed out to unsuspecting kids.

Talking of local customs that would cause screaming outrage in the US, in the Netherlands, St. Nicholas or Sinterklaas as he’s called there also takes along his black pal Zwarte Piet (Black Pete) on his present-giving rounds. I spent a lot of time in the Netherlands as a kid and teenager, so I’m pretty familiar with Zwarte Piet. I also liked him a lot better than Knecht Ruprecht who sometimes shows up in German folklore and who is basically a scary guy with a beard, though I always thought Knecht Ruprecht was an alternate name for St. Nicholas as a kid. But considering that the Zwarte Piet is usually a guy in blackface, I don’t want to imagine the outrage he would cause in the US. And already does, apparently.

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3 Responses to Of Advent Calendars, St Nicholas and Other Seasonal Customs

  1. Pingback: St Nicholas Day Linkdump | Cora Buhlert

  2. Pingback: Gendering and Kinder Surprise Eggs | Cora Buhlert

  3. Pingback: Jolly Old St. Nicholas | Cora Buhlert

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