While Germany's children are looking into the shoes they put out before going to bed and spent the night hoping to find them filled with candy in the morning, kids in other countries might be scared they'll get the whip.
Saint Nicholas with staff and mitre
The island of Borkum has an unusual way of celebrating the Feast of St. Nicholas.
Saint Nicholas, known as Klaasohm in the regional low German dialect, roams the island in the night of Dec. 5 and spanks young women on the behind. And he whacks them hard, using a big curved cow-horn.
Borkum boasts six of these such red-nosed "Klaases" who sport huge sheepskins on their backs and have cow-tails. They drink schnapps with the local men and dance on the bar tables till late in the night and they give gifts to the children.
This old whaling custom has very little to do with the celebrated fourth-century bishop from Asia Minor, but it is how the islanders celebrate St. Nicholas Day. In what seems to outsiders to be no more than an excuse for drunken debauchery, the night is reputed for being great fun and the young islanders start their preparations months in advance.
A humble and generous bishop becomes a legend
Nicholas, a fourth-century bishop from Asia Minor
More traditionally, however, Nicholas is known as a gaunt bishop from the ancient city of Myra, now in Turkey. He apparently became a bishop at the age of 19 and gave away his inheritance to the poor. His humility and generosity gave rise to a wealth of legends.
One story tells of Nicholas coaxing grain intended for the emperor from some sailors in the local port to feed the poor during a famine. When the cargo was unloaded in Byzantium, not a single grain was said to be missing.
Another time, he bailed out an impoverished father whose daughters could not marry because he had no dowry for them. Three nights running, Nicholas threw gold nuggets into the young women's bedroom and thus the wedding bells were able to toll.
Over time, the gold nuggets were transformed into golden apples, whereas the Kaiser's grain became tasty foodstuffs and candy.
Nicholas' punishing helper
Together they mete out praise and punishment
But St. Nicholas didn't run a one-man operation. The good, generous Nicholas was said to be accompanied by an angry side-kick whose task it is to mete out punishment to mischievous children. In Germany, this devilish being goes as Knecht Ruprecht, in Switzerland his name is Smutzli, in Austria he is known as Krampli and in Holland he is Zwarte Piet, the Black Peter.
Just as their names differ, so do their appearances and their use of rods, whips and rattling chains. However, their common role, which arose in the Middle Ages, was customarily to frighten children into good behavior with threats of being whipped, slit open or gobbled up.
According to the Dutch, Sinterklaas, wearing his bishop's garb, and Zwarte Piet in his devil's dress, live in Spain most of the year, monitoring the children from afar. But, once a year in November, they set anchor in Holland and their arrival is broadcast on television and the duo travels across the Netherlands, giving out praise and punishment.
Well-behaved Dutch children receive their annual gifts on Dec. 6, instead of Dec. 25. Naughty children, however, get the rod -- with Zwarte Piet scooping up the worst of the worst into his sack and taking them all the way back to Spain.
Legends all rolled into one
Santa Claus as he is known today with his helpers the reindeers
In Finland, Nicholas goes by Joulupukki. He is neither holy nor devilish but pretty pagan. He lives in Lapland and distributes gifts on Dec. 6, which are reminiscent of pagan times. A descendent of this 900-year-old man has been trying to prove his existence for years. In his version of the St. Nick story, the sack and the rod are symbols of male fertility.
Saint Nicholas, Black Pete and Santa Claus have merged into one happy entity, as have the myths and legends, culminating in a cheery Christmas celebration at the end of the year. The Christian reformers of the Middle Ages had their part in this metamorphosis and people transposed their pagan customs to Christmas.
Whatever the tradition today's children believe, the hope that Nicholas has paid them an overnight visit leaving them gifts and candy has become the norm. Whether he put them in their clean shoes, threw them through the window or sneaked them into their stockings hanging above the fireplace is irrelevant. Santa Claus can also wear a bishop's hat, a long beard or daddy's bathrobe for all they care.
The ubiquitous, super-cuddly, white-bearded Santa Claus who has become so well-loved among children across the world is a recent invention. He appeared on the world-stage during a 1930s Coca-Cola advertising campaign. His permanent grin has not been wiped off since.