22 Dec /11

The German Nikolaus vs. the American Santa Claus

Nobody really knows the traditional German Nikolaus in the United States. Over here, we have Santa Claus. Even though the two gentlemen look very much alike, their schedules are very different.

For St. Nikolaus Day in Germany, many children put a boot or shoe outside the front door on the night of December 5. If you were a good kid, Nikolaus will fill your boot with gifts and sweets overnight. At the same  time he checks up on the children to see if they were good, polite and helpful during the last year. If they were not, they will find a tree branch in their boots instead. In some instances Nikolaus might even visit the children at school or in their homes and personally inquire if they have been naughty or nice. Usually the kids recite poems or play a song for Nikolaus and get awarded with a small present.

In the United States Santa Claus is off until Christmas night. But come December 24th he works around the clock and the entire night to achieve his daunting task of visiting every child’s home. The children in the US will put out a plate of cookies with a glass of milk, less to lure him in as to prevent him from fainting during this work-intense night. Santa Claus finally arrives with sled and reindeers und enters through the chimney with his sack full of gifts. Not unlike St Nikolaus, he will leave gifts for the good children and coal for the naughty ones. After he snacked on the cookies and milk for much needed refreshment, he continues his journey to the next house full of children.

Santa Claus is, however, also  a great example of an American adaptation of Old Word fairy tales and holiday customs which morphed under the influence of the many different cultures that meet in the United States into its very own holiday character. Santa Claus’ name, of course, is almost a direct translation of the old Saint (Santa) Nikolaus (Claus). They similarly deal out punishment for unruly children and reward the good and obedient. While few know St. Nikolaus now, he was once quite popular on American shores. In the early 19th century, poet Clement Clark Moore, for instance, wrote his now famous poem “The Night before Christmas.” In the poem, written when many German holiday customs were still celebrated practically unaltered by immigrant families, “Saint Nick” is still the guy “with a sleigh full of toys” and not Santa Claus. As second generation immigrants immersed themselves in a developing American culture, the customs and traditions they brought from their native countries became translated into American popular consciousness and adapted to blend with existing holiday traditions until Santa Claus has replaced the old St. Nikolaus.

Since the EVS Translations office in Atlanta has coworkers from both countries, we had a little treat for everyone on December 6, and we all enjoyed homemade Christmas cookies, candy and fruit.

Happy Holidays from our team in Atlanta! Enjoy friends and family during this season! All the best for 2012!