This month on my blog I’m sharing holiday traditions, mine and other people’s as well. This is the second of those posts, you can find the first, entitled Giftmas Cards (and subsequent ones) by visiting the main page, here. Happy Ho Ho!
No Time Like December 6 To Polish Your Boots–Nikolaustag in Germany
By Alexandra Seidel
You know how the Christmas season always creeps up on you and is suddenly just here, real unexpectedly? Yeah, happened again this year, and now it’s just a little over three weeks to Giftmas.
But perhaps sharing a little culture and tradition with everyone can make the time seem longer, or at least make one take notice of it more. So here goes.
I want to share a German tradition with you (no, there are no pickled tree ornaments, like, at all over here). I’m talking about “Nikolaustag” (St. Nick’s Day) which is celebrated on December 6. And how do you celebrate? Well, I suppose there are a lot of older customs, but really the bones of it are these: the night before December 6, you have to clean your boots, get them all shiny and tidy, put them just outside your door, and then the next morning, St. Nick will have left something in those boots, most traditionally oranges and nuts, but nowadays it’s more likely toys and chocolate.
I do suppose it’s a little bit like a test run for Christmas. Being a kid, it sure is nice to be given gifts twice in December.
St. Nick’s Day is more widely celebrated in this part of Europe, but also in Denmark, and I think Sweden, too. As with Christmas, it might go back to a much older pagan festival, but I cannot provide any specific information. What I can provide is a regional quirk within Germany of which not even many Germans are aware.
I grew up in the north of Hesse, which is the state pretty much in the center of Germany. Here, we actually did celebrate December 6 in a special way. Kids will put on masks (those used to be predominantly Santa Claus masks, but really anything will do nowadays) and costumes and go from door to door on the evening of December 6, reciting poems or little rhymes to then collect candy (or in some cases a few coins) for their troubles. There is even a special name for that evening: “Glowesnacht” or “Glowesabend” (or also “Klobes-” or “Clobes-” instead of the “Glowes-” used here.) According to the internet, “Glowes-” and its alternate forms are all vernacular forms of the name ‘Klaus,’ as in Nikolaus, the notorious gift-giver whose cultural roots may go back to pagan times for all I know. After asking a few relatives and some more internet research, it seems that this tradition is also known in the Hamelin area (home of the Grimms’ pied piper fairy tale) as well as the Bremen area (which we also know from the Grimms’ The Town Musicians of Bremen.)
Glowesabend is pretty much like Halloween actually, but again, where that tradition comes from exactly and why it is only observed in part of the country while everyone else doesn’t even seem to know about it, I cannot tell you. I do know that it was also common, at least until a generation ago, that older teens would go from door to door and get schnapps instead of candy, at least in smaller villages. I suspect–again, with no proof–that this can be connected to Krampus, a darker and more rowdy expression of the saintly gift-giver, most certainly with pagan roots.
Wherever those traditions come from, what they all have in common is an emphasis on community and on bringing some more light and good spirits into an otherwise dark and cold season. And there is nothing wrong with that, especially if you can combine it all with some mulled wine, laughter, and friends.
Alexa Seidel edits poetry for Niteblade. She also writes things that get published every now and then in such places as Strange Horizons, Mythic Delirium, Lackington’s Magazine, and elsewhere. Alexa has a great fondness for the cold and dark season because it makes you find the warmest and brightest places (where there is mulled wine.) If you are so inclined, have a look at her blog www.tigerinthematchstickbox.blogspot.com or follow her on Twitter @Alexa_Seidel.