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The Reformation

Part 2 of 2

In Germany, Martin Luther sought to reemphasize the position of Christ, and promoted the Christ Child — the "Christ Kindlein" – as the Gift Giver (which eventually became Kris Kringle). The Christkindlein was often portrayed by a fair-haired young girl.

Painting of the Christ KindleinThomas Nast, drawing on his German youth created the (thumbnail) illustration to the right. It was published by Harper’s Bazar at Christmas 1886-87. The model was the daughter of Senator Tabor of Colorado.

In these traditions, Saint Nicholas became the assistant to the Christkindlein. He was called Weihnachtsmann (Christmas Man), Schimmelreiter (Rider of the White Horse), or under a number of other guises, including:

  • Ru Klaus (meaning Rough Nicholas - so named because of his rugged appearance),

  • Aschen Klaus or Ashenclos (meaning Ash Nicholas - because he carried a sack of ashes as well as a bundle of switches)

  • Pelze Nicol or Pelznickle (meaning Furry Nicholas - referring to his fur clad appearance). This was the  Nicholas that illustrator Thomas Nast drew upon when drawing his famous series of Santa Claus illustrations in the late 19th Century.

  • Belsnickle or Buller Clos (Nicholas with bells).

In some regions of Germany, Saint Nicholas – in any of a number of guises – remained the gift giver, accompanied by a servant named Knecht Rupprecht (Servant Rupert, dressed in ragged clothes, with fur, a mask, a blackened face); in Luxembourg, the servant was called Hoesacker. This servant was often a fearsome character, and came with a sack on his back and a rod or switch in his hand. It is the helper who keeps track of who was good and who was naughty. And again it was not only his duty to reward good children, but also to reprove children who were naughty and couldn't recite their prayers. Good children receive a gift. Naughty children may get only a lump of coal, or switches with which their parents could administer appropriate punishment (or, in some cases, the assistant would administer the punishment himself!).

The Dutch tradition of a big "Sint Nicholaas" market dates to the beginning of the 15th Century, according to one source.

Santa Claus Bearing the Christ ChildDuring the Reformation, a ban was placed on the celebration of Saint Nicholas Eve in the Netherlands, forbidding passing out of cookies and cakes to children, a custom that had been as entrenched as the American tradition of trick-or-treating on Halloween (All Hallow's Eve, October 31).

Charles W. Jones, at page 330-1 quoted the following ordinance enacted in the mid-1600s:

Since the magistrates [of Amsterdam] have learned that in previous years, notwithstanding the publishing of the Bylaws, on Saint Nicholas Eve various persons have been standing on the Dam and other places in the town with candy, eatables, and other merchandise, so that a large crowd from all over town gathered…the same magistrates, to prevent all such disorders and to take the superstition and fables of the papacy out of the youths’ heads, have ordered, regulated, and opined that on Saint Nicholas Eve no persons, whoever they may be, are to be allowed on the Dam or any other places and streets within this town with any kind of candy, eatables, or other merchandise…[under penalty of very severe fines].

As always, the attempts by officials to repress these celebrations were exercises in futility.

Notwithstanding the Reformation, the Dutch kept the Saint Nicholas tradition alive as they joined in the flood of immigrants to the New World. The Dutch brought with them to the New World Christmas traditions that were quickly Americanized (which is how "Sinterklaas" became "Santa Claus").

In the Low Countries of Belgium, the Netherlands (Holland) and Luxembourg, St. Nicholas was known as Sint Nikolaas, Sanct Herr Nicholaas, or Sinterklaas, who sails from his castle in Madrid, Spain to the Netherlands on a steamship arriving on or about November 16th (hence the Dutch carol Zie ginds komt de stoomboot - English translation: Look, Here Comes The Steamboat). According to a correspondent, Sinterklaas arrives early so that he can visit children,  schools, and hospitals.

The "big night" is the eve of his festival, December 5th. He carries a big book that tells him how the Dutch children have behaved during the past year. Good children are rewarded with gifts and the bad ones are given a lump of coal, a bag of ashes, punished with a rod or switch, or even taken away in a sack by his assistant, Zwarte Piet (Black Peter, so called because he delivered the presents down the chimney for St. Nicholas in Holland and became blackened with soot; in other traditions, between 3 and 20 Spanish blackamoor servants in medieval Moorish costumes, who were called ‘Black Peters’, accompanied St. Nicholas).

Children placed wooden shoes by the hearth or stove the night of St. Nicholas's arrival. The shoes were filled with hay, bread, or a carrot for Schimmel, the white horse of Sinterklaas. If they were good boys and girls they would find presents, fruit and money in their clogs when they woke up on the saint's feast day, December 6th.

These days, I am informed, children get their presents on the night of the 5th. Usually there will be a knocking on the door and a sack with presents will be sitting there. Grown-ups make silly presents for each other and all have to be accompanied with a rhyme. The family will spend the evening drinking hot chocolate, and eating 'boterletter' and 'speculaas'. You can find these recipes at the the Christmas International group at (Thanks, Tink!)

Sinterklaas departs on his feast day, December 6th. An old tradition has the bad children stuffed into a sack -- and dropped into the sea as Nicholas and Peter make their way home to Spain. A milder treatment says that the bad children are taken back to Spain where the kindly saint and his assistants attempt to rehabilitate them.


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Collections of Christmas Carols & Poetry
Compiled and Edited by
Douglas D. Anderson

Victorian Visions
A Christmas Poetry Collection

Divinely Inspired
A Christmas Poetry Collection

The Bridegroom Cometh
Poetry For The Advent

Other books by Doug Anderson

Once A Lovely Shining Star

A Christmas Poetry Collection

So Gracious Is The Time

A Christmas Poetry Collection

How Still The Night

The Christmas Poems of Father Andrew, S.D.C.

 Father and Daughter

Christmas Poems by Frances and William Havergal

Now, Now The Mirth Comes

Christmas Poetry by Robert Herrick

What Sudden Blaze Of Song

The Christmas Poems of Rev. John Keble

 A Holy Heavenly Chime

The Christmastide Poems of Christina Georgina Rossetti

All My Heart This Night Rejoices

The Christmas Poems of Catherine Winkworth

A Victorian Carol Book

Favorites from the 19th Century —
Still favorites today!

Other Books by Doug Anderson

A Psalter – A Book of the Psalms Arranged by Luther's Categories

Betbüchlein: A Personal Prayer Book, a recreation of Luther's 1529 prayer book

Daily Prayer

Luther's Passional

Luther's Writings on Prayer: A Selection

Devotions for the Advent – 2009

The Lenten Sermons of Martin Luther, Second Edition

Descriptions of all these volumes can be seen at
Books by Doug Anderson

The Hymns and Carols of Christmas
Douglas D. Anderson

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