‘Tis the Season for a Reckoning: Nikolaustag (St. Nicholas Day)


Maybe you are late getting the message:  You’d better be good, for goodness sake.  Or if you live in certain regions of Germany and Austria, my friend, you’d better be good, for badness and brimstone’s sake.  A reckoning is coming and coming quickly.  Today is the eve of Nikolaustag– St. Nicolas Day, aka Boot Night.  Children put out boots and St. Nick fills them with candy.  Unless, *sigh*, well, there’s no easy way to tell this . . .

Salvation by chocolate is not a sure thing in middle Europe.  

Judgment is real and is more gruesome than a lump of coal.

On Nikolaustag or its eve, St. Nick is accompanied by his Shadow– his ominous, treacherous, hideous shadow.  The Shadow offers not candy and kindness but switches, ashes, and a little roughing up.  Or, possibly, if you are really bad (you know who you are), you’ll be stuffed in a sack and carried off to the netherworld . . . in one piece or many, it makes no difference to this guy.

I kid you not.

The exact form of this shadow is dependent on the region of Germany– Schwarz Peter, Knecht Ruprecht, or Krampus are all grotesque and the stuff of nightmares, but, for my money, Krampus is the most horrible.  Of the many things Bavaria and its neighboring corner of Austria do right–and there are so many– Krampus is not one.  He is, literally, a beastly demon.  But don’t take my word for it, let Anthony Bourdain bring you up to speed:

Those of you who live in Germany or have followed my blog in 2014 and 2015 have more than a little knowledge of this Christmas tradition, so I won’t be long winded here.  (But you can revisit those old blog posts and get up to speed at these links:  St. Nick and Belsnickel,  and Saints and Demons)

If you have been nice this year, or even reasonably nice this year (I don’t know about you all, but the bar is set pretty low in my house), then you will probably make it out of this holiday alive.  You may even get a bootful of candy!

I did have a friend whose slightly naughty younger brother once got only a bra in his boot– and, to clarify, this was not taken as encouragement to be naughty, but meant to humiliate him into being better next year.  Oh, that crazy German sense of humor!

We’re Stateside this year, but we are still celebrating Boot Night.  Wish us luck with that– I’m feeling cautiously optimistic.

17 thoughts on “‘Tis the Season for a Reckoning: Nikolaustag (St. Nicholas Day)

  1. Reminds me of part of my childhood in Austria 🙂 It’s also celebrated – though simply religiously – in the South of Italy in Bari, where San Nicola is the patron saint….

      1. As far as I know, in Bari there’s a rite to help unmarried women find a husband 🙂 Actually, you made me curious and I looked him up: he’s celebrated in both in Western and Eastern Christian countries with many local traditions.

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