Tag Archives: Saint Nicholas

Loriot and his poem about “Advent” – an example of German humour

During this time of the year we’re used to stories showing the values of our traditions and religions. Most of them are shared with children.

The poem I would like to share in this post is about the time of advent and St. Nicholas.


Ödipussi (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

It is written and performed by the German comedian, humorist, cartoonist, film director, actor and writer Vicco von Bülow (1923-2011) alias Loriot. He is best known for his cartoons, the sketches from his 1976 television series Loriot, alongside Evelyn Hamann, and his two movies, Ödipussi (1988) and Pappa Ante Portas (1991).

In six episodes of Loriot, he presented sketches, usually being the protagonist himself, and short cartoons, drawn by himself.

Loriot’s humour focussed on the peculiarities of German people including the awkwardness of everyday situations and miscommunication in human interaction.

“What I am interested in most of all are people whose communication fails. All that I consider comical results from crumbled communication, from talk at cross purposes.” (Loriot)

His cartoons hinged on the contrast between the presented situation, the dignity displayed by his typically big nosed characters and the picture’s caption. Inevitably one of these elements gets out of line, for example, when he combines the caption “We demand equal treatment of men and women, even if the suckling baby might temporarily lose weight.” with the picture of a bulbous-nosed man breast-feeding a baby in a distinguished manner. The topics of his cartoons were mainly drawn from everyday life, scenes of the family and middle-class society. (wikipedia)

This contrast between absurd an situation and dignified behaviour are very characteristic for his sketches and films. Loriot was incredibly popular. The accuracy of his language and the “high-brow sense of comedy led to the adoption of a large number of phrases and inventions from the series’ sketches into German common knowledge and everyday speech.” There is the “yodel diploma”, the “stone louse” and sentences like “With that, you have somehing on your own!”, “Please, don’t talk right now…”, “There used to be more tinsel”, “Look, a piano! A piano, a piano!” or the laconic “Ach!?” (“Oh, is it?”…).

In this macabre poem entitled Advent (1973), Loriot lent Knecht Ruprecht its diabolic-sinister context from which he originated.


Es blaut die Nacht, die Sternlein blinken,      / The night turns blue, the stars are twinkling

Schneefloecklein leis herniedersinken.      / snowflakes quietly are sinking.

Auf Edeltaennleins gruenem Wipfel     / The fire tree tops are beaming green

haeuft sich ein kleiner weisser Zipfel. / and little snow heaps can be seen.

Und dort vom Fenster her durchbricht / There! From a window  rather bright

den dunklen Tann ein warmes Licht.   / through the trees there goes a light.

Im Forsthaus kniet bei Kerzenschimmer / Lit by candles, woodman’s hut

die Foersterin im Herrenzimmer. / the woodman’s wife sits on her butt (in the woodman’s study).

In dieser wunderschoenen Nacht  / Just in this silent winter time

hat sie den Foerster umgebracht.  / has she committed murder crime

Er war ihr bei des Heimes Pflege / and killed the woodman in great haste

seit langer Zeit schon im Wege.   / she thought of him as rather waste.

So kam sie mit sich ueberein:   / Thus was the plan. At Nichlas Eve

am Niklasabend muss es sein. / poor wasteful woodman had to leave

Und als das Rehlein ging zur Ruh’, / when deer was from the forest creeping

das Haeslein tat die Augen zu,  / the little rabbit started sleeping

erlegte sie direkt von vorn  / a rifle took the woodman’s wife

den Gatten ueber Kimme und Korn. / and took away her husbands life.

Vom Knall geweckt ruempft nur der Hase / The bang annoyed the rabbit’s sleep

zwei-, drei-, viermal die Schnuppernase  / for just a minute, when he was deep

und ruhet weiter suess im Dunkeln, / and in the forest, thinking

derweil die Sternlein traulich funkeln.  / while high above the stars were twinkling.

Und in der guten Stube drinnen / And in the woodman’s snuggery

da laeuft des Foersters Blut von hinnen. / his blood escapes the artery.

Nun muss die Foersterin sich eilen, / The woodman’s wife must quickly act

den Gatten sauber zu zerteilen. / and cuts the woodman – that’s a fact

Schnell hat sie ihn bis auf die Knochen / as custom is for woodmans doing

nach Waidmanns Sitte aufgebrochen. / she skins her husband without woeing.

Voll Sorgfalt legt sie Glied auf Glied / With care she places all the pieces

(was der Gemahl bisher vermied)-, / and keeps a filet for her nieces

behaelt ein Teil Filet zurueck / as festive roast, a tender part

als festtaegliches Bratenstueck / she thinks that this is really smart.

und packt zum Schluss, es geht auf vier / The rest she wraps like Christmas gifts

die Reste in Geschenkpapier. / and thinks of them as precious thrifts.

Da toent’s von fern wie Silberschellen, / Hark! Silver-bells are ringing sweetly

im Dorfe hoert man Hunde bellen. / a dog is barking rather neatly.

Wer ist’s, der in so tiefer Nacht / Who might it be, so late at night,

im Schnee noch seine Runden macht ? / to walk in snow and without light?

Knecht Ruprecht kommt mit goldenem Schlitten / The helper of Santa Claus (Ruprecht) is riding

auf einem Hirsch herangeritten ! / on a stag, and law-abiding,

“He, gute Frau, habt ihr noch Sachen, / he asks the woodman’s wife for presents

die armen Menschen Freude machen ?” / to kids and to the poorer peasants.

Des Foersters Haus ist tief verschneit, / The woodman’s hut lays in the snow

doch seine Frau steht schon bereit: / but woodman’s wife – she isn’t slow:

“Die sechs Pakete, heil’ger Mann, / “Good man, all that I have is gathered here.

‘s ist alles, was ich geben kann.”  / Six wrappings, to the peasants’ peer.

Die Silberschellen klingen leise, / The bells are ringing, nice and pure

Knecht Ruprecht macht sich auf die Reise. / Santa’s helper makes his tour

Im Foerstershaus die Kerze brennt, / a candle in the woodman’s vent

ein Sternlein blinkt – es ist Advent. / is shining there – it is Advent.


translation into English from © Mathias and tastyarts


About St Nicholas and his legend

A medieval fresco depicting St Nicholas from t...

A medieval fresco depicting St Nicholas from the Boyana Church, near Sofia, Bulgaria. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Sinterklaas or Nikolaus, San Nicola etc. in European countries is based on the legendary figure of St Nicholas. Born in 271 AD to a rich Greek family in Asia Minor in in the city of Patara (Lycia et Pamphylia), he was very religious from an early age. His parents died by an epidemic while Nicholas was still very young and he was raised by his uncle (also named Nicholas), the bishop of Patara. ” He tonsured the young Nicholas as a reader and later ordained him a presbyter (priest). “(wikipedia) Nicholas decided to distribute his wealth to the poor and become a priest. Later he became the Arch Bishop of Myra, a place near the city of Anatolia in Turkey.

He had the reputation for secret gift-giving, such as putting coins in the shoes of those who left them out for him and became the model for Santa Claus (celebrated on 24th or 25th December), whose modern name comes from the Dutch Sinterklaas. Sinterklaas in turn comes from a series of elisions and corruptions of the transliteration of “Saint Nikolaos”.

The fame of St Nicholas’ good deeds began to spread across the Mediterranean and he became known as a patron saint of children, sailors, merchants, archors, travellers and of the city of Amsterdam. Therefore this figure has a special meaning to the Dutch and to the children.

There are many legends about St Nicholas. One tells how a terrible famine struck the island and a malicious butcher lured three little children to his house, killed them and placed their remains in a barrel to cure, planning to sell them off as ham. Saint Nicholas, visiting the region to care for the hungry, saw through this horrible crime and resurrected the three boys from the barrel by his prayers. In another version (from the 11th Century), the butcher’s victims were three clerks who wished to stay the night. The man murdered them and intended to turn them into meat pies. Saint Nicholas saw through this and brought the men back to life. – These kind of legends seem to have originated some of the well known helpers of St Nicholas in many European countries.

The legends with the most likely historical basis are those with St Nicholas being the helper or being the secret benefactor:

Nicholas heard about a man who had lost all his money. He had three daughters who were old enough to get married but had no dowry.

This family was so poor they had nothing left to eat. The daughters were going to be sold as slaves because they couldn’t live at home any longer. They were very sad. They wouldn’t be able to have families of their own. And they would have to be slaves—no longer able to decide where they would live or what they would do.

The night before the oldest daughter was to be sold, she washed her stockings and put them in front of the fire to dry. Then all of them went to sleep—the father and the three daughters.

In the morning the daughter saw a lump in her stocking. Reaching in, she found a small, heavy bag. It had gold inside! Enough to provide food for the family and money for her dowry. Oh, how happy they were!

The next morning, another bag with gold was found. Imagine! Two of the daughters would now be saved. Such joy!

And the next night, the father planned to stay awake to find out who was helping his daughters. He dozed off, but heard a small “clink” as another bag landed in the room. Quickly he jumped up and ran out the door. Who did he catch ducking around the corner? – Nicholas, the young man who lived with his uncle. “Nicholas, it is you! Thank you for helping us—I hardly know what to say!” Nicholas said, “Please, do not thank me—thank God that your prayers have been answered. Do not tell others about me.”

Nicholas continued helping people. He always tried to help secretly. He didn’t want any attention or thanks. Years passed and he was chosen to be a bishop. Bishops look after their people as shepherds look after their sheep. And that is what Nicholas did. When there wasn’t any food, he found wheat; so no one went hungry. He always helped people in trouble. All his life Nicholas showed people how to love God and care for each other.

Everyone loved Nicholas. After he died, they told stories of the good and kind things Nicholas had done. Sailors took these stories about Nicholas everywhere they went. Some of the stories were about his special care for children—helping and protecting them when danger threatened. And so more and more people learned about good, kind Nicholas. They wanted to be like him. He is an example of how we should live. And that is why he became a saint. (Carol Myers)

St Nicholas and his helpers Knecht Ruprecht, Krampus, Père Fouettard and Zwarte Piet

St Nicholas is celebrated in many countries of Europe, mainly in German speaking countries and throughout the territory of the Holy Roman Empire, and is usually accompained by helpers.

This dark or threatening companion of St Nicholas is called Krampus in Austria, Bavaria, Croatia, Slovenia, Friuli (North Eastern Italy), Hungary (here he is spelled Krampusz); Klabauf in Bavaria, Austria; Pelzebock or Bullerklas in Northern Germany or Knecht Ruprecht (from Old High German hruot, ”fame“, ”shiny“). In the Czech Republic, the helper is called Čert (Devil) and Anděl (Angel). In Luxemburg he is called Houseker. Rubbels is his name in German-speaking Lorraine and Hans Trapp in Alsace, and Le Père Fouettard in Wallonia, Northern and Eastern France. – In German speaking countries there are innumerable names of this feared figure: Ascheklas, Bartel, Bullerklas, Bullkater, Busebrecht, Butz, Butzebercht, Dollochs, Düsseli, Einspeiber, Erbsbär, Hans Muff, Hans Trapp, Kehraus, Klaubauf, Klausenpicker, Klombsack, Krampus, Leutfresser, Pelzebock, Pelznickel, Pietermann, Pulterklas, Ruklas, Rupsack, Schmutzli, schwarz Käsperchen, Semper, Spitzbartl, Zink Knatsch, Zink Muff, Zwarter Piet etc.


Some of these figures have the ressemblance of a red (or black) devil with cloven hooves and goatish horns: like Krampus (which derives from the Old High German krampho “claw, hook, cramp” (9./10. century)).

Krampus!These figures most probably originates from the tradition of the Perchten. In the alpine regions of Bavaria, Austria and Southern Tirol, these figures are the “ugly Perchten” (Schiachperchten) who have “fangs, tusks and horse tails which are used to drive out demons and ghosts. Men dressed as the ugly Perchten during the 16th century and went from house to house driving out bad spirits.” In some regions of Austria, Bavaria, Southern Tirol and Switzerland, those figures appear in Hordes during the winter (usually to exorcise the winter, later on in February/March), whereas Krampus accompains St Nicholas on the 6th of December.

Uh, d'r Schmutzli.Some others, like Knecht Ruprecht or Schmutzli etc.,  seem more like a rustic version of Saint Nicholas himself. They look very sinister and are dressed in black rags, have a black face and unruly black hair. – Knecht Ruprecht appeared for the first time in a German play in 1668.

These companions come with twigs or whips, rods, a stick or a broom and a sack. They carry a sack of ashes for the misbehaving childern and sometimes they would threaten to abduct disobedient children and put them in the sac. – It was actually a pretty effective method parents used to make their children behave by frightening them that St Nicholas’ companion would take them away in his sack if they’ve been bad.

Le Père FouettardLe Père Fouettard

The French Père Fouettard, the “Wipping Father” was said to bring the whip with him to spank all of the naughty children who misbehaved.

The most popular story about Père Fouettard relates to the year 1150. In this version, Père Fouettard was an inn-keeper/ butcher. It was said that he kidnapped and murdered three children, who were lost and could not find their way home. A somewhat reformed version claims that, the three children, all boys, were passing by the inn-keeper’s house while they were on their way to a religious boarding school. On realizing that the kids were rich the inn-keeper and his wife, kidnapped the three children and murdered them. Several types of torture, all ghastly, are known to have been inflicted on the children by the inn-keeper and his wife, who were set on robbing them. One grisly version tells that, the cruel inn-keeper, and his wife, lured the children, drugged them by offering wine, slit their throats, chopped them into pieces and cooked them in a stew. Another account states that, the children were chopped, salted and stowed away in a salting tub, to be eaten later. (wikipedia)

It is said that St Nicholas, after discovering those crimes, miraculously resurrected the children and returned them to their families. He then forced the inn-keeper to “redress for his crimes” and he had to repent for his sins, becoming Le Père Fouettard. He vowed to follow St Nicholas as his partner forever. – Since then, Père Fouettard accompanies St Nicholas on the 6th of December on his visits to the homes of children. As Père Fouettard, the “Wipping Father”, he whips the undisciplined children, while St Nicholas offers gifts and treats to the obedient ones.

From fearce to tender

In more recent times the fear-bearing creature of Knecht Ruprecht and some of the other helpers mentioned above have been increasingly softened.

In the German speaking countries, the very popular poem by Theodor Storm (* 1817 † 1888) depicts Knecht Ruprecht  as a ”faithful servant“ whose answer in response to the question of the Christ-child (Christkind) shows just how much he prefers handing out apples, nuts and almonds instead of hitting their rears:

Von drauß’ vom Walde komm ich her;
Ich muß euch sagen, es weihnachtet sehr!
Allüberall auf den Tannenspitzen
Sah ich goldene Lichtlein sitzen;
Und droben aus dem Himmelstor
Sah mit großen Augen das Christkind hervor,
Und wie ich so strolcht durch den finsteren Tann,
Da rief’s mich mit heller Stimme an.
„Knecht Rupprecht”, rief es, „alter Gesell,
Hebe die Beine und spute dich schnell!Die Kerzen fangen zu brennen an,
Das Himmelstor ist aufgetan,
Alt’ und Junge sollen nun
Von der Jagd des Lebens einmal ruhn;
Und morgen flieg ich hinab zur Erden,
Denn es soll wieder Weihnachten werden!”

Ich sprach: „O lieber Herre Christ,
Meine Reise fast zu Ende ist;
Ich soll nur noch in diese Stadt,
Wo’s eitel gute Kinder hat.”
„Hast denn das Säcklein auch bei Dir?”
Ich sprach: „Das Säcklein, das ist hier;
Denn Äpfel, Nuss und Mandelkern
Fressen fromme Kinder gern.”
„Hast denn die Rute auch bei Dir?”
Ich sprach: „Die Rute, die ist hier;
Doch für die Kinder nur, die schlechten,
Die trifft sie auf den Teil, den rechten.”

Christkindlein sprach: „So ist es recht;
So geh mit Gott, mein treuer Knecht!”
Von drauß’ vom Walde komm ich her;
Ich muß euch sagen, es weihnachtet sehr!
Nun sprecht, wie ich’s hierinnen find!
Sind’s gute Kind, sind’s böse Kind?

(1) I came here from the forest / I tell you, it is a very holy night! / All over the tips of the firs / I saw bright flashes of golden light; / And from above, the gates of heaven / I saw with open eyes the Christ-child / and as I wander through the dark forest / I hear a light voice calling me. / ”Knecht Ruprecht“ it called, ”Old man / Lift your legs and hurry! Fast! / (2) The candles alight / the gates of heaven open wide / old and young / shall rest from the hunt of life / and tomorrow I shall fly to earth / as it shall be Christmas again!“ / (3) I said: ”O dear master, Christ / My trip is almost at an end; / It is only this one town / where the children are good“. / ”Do you have your sack with your?“ / I said: ”The sack, it is here; / apples, nuts and almonds / solemn children do enjoy“. / ”Do you also have your cane?“ / I said: ”The cane, it is here. / But only for the bad children, / to hit their right rear“. (4) The Christ-child spoke: ”That is good; / So go with god my faithful servant!“ / I came here from the forest / I tell you, it is a very holy night! / Speak now how I find it here / Are the children good or bad? (©Sutter)

Also in The Netherlands and Belgium, the servant Zwarte Piet was previously a more demonic character, then a Moorish partner responsible for organizing the gifts for the children. Only after 1845, when the primary school-teacher Jan Schenkman writes the book Sint Nicolaas en zijn Knecht (“Saint Nicholas and his Servant”), a Spanish servant is introduced into the St Nicholas narrative. The servant is described as a page boy or young man, and is depicted as a dark person wearing clothes associated with Moors. In 1891, in the book Het Feest van Sinterklaas, the servant is called Pieter (for the first time) and many other names followed until 1920. “In the early 20th century the Civilized Standard Celebration for children, with Zwarte Piet as the standard personal servant of the saint, spread throughout the country.”

During the 20th century, the character of Zwarte Piet changed into a real friend of children. – He still carries a bag, but in the bag are sweets, which he throws around for all children. Also the number of Pieten multiplied and female Piets were included. This paradigm shift offered the possibility of creating several different Zwarte Piet characters. “During the televised yearly event, when Sinterklaas arrives by boat, he is often assisted by dozens of Piets, for example there’s a Hoofdpiet (Head Piet) who carries the book of Sinterklaas, a Rijmpiet (Rhyme Piet) and so on.”

During the last two centuries, Zwarte Piet changed from an “enslaved devil, forced to assist his captor” to the likeness of a Moor, a servant of St Nicholas in the 19th century Netherlands. This new Zwarte Piet also changed the attitude of the Sinterklaas character: he became more severe towards bad children himself and did worry many teachers and priests “due to the depiction of a holy man in this light”. – Today, both characters are much softer. Since immigration increased from the former colonised countries, the “Zwarte Piet became a much more respected assistant of Saint Nicholas, inattentive but playful”. – Due to the recent debates and protests about the future of the Zwarte Pieten in the Netherlands, this all might change very soon. How is the “Zwarte Piet” or “Piet” going to look like? Will the future Pieten be “just” helpers? How will their dresses look like? Will there be different characters of helpers or only one? – Piet has changed so much during these last two centuries, maybe it’s time to move on. But does moving on really mean to completely abolish and reject something that Dutch children (and many adults!) cherish and look forward during this time of the year? What are options that meet the needs of people who want to maintain the Zwarte Pieten and those who want them to “leave”? Maybe a colourful coexistence of past figures and new ones? How would the new ones look like?

I just hope that they will find a compromise that permits children to still sing the traditional songs without feeling judged by celebrating St Nicholas and to wear those colourful clothes while attending the intocht and the weeks following the arrival of Sinterklaas.

English: Two children dressed up as 'zwarte pi...

English: Two children dressed up as ‘zwarte pieten’ (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Sinterklaas, Nikolaus, Befana or Heilige Drei Könige?

When you live in a multicultural family and context, there are moments where you have to decide which festivity (or holiday) you want to celebrate with your family, extended family, friends etc.

During this time of the year, there are a few traditions that seem very different, but are quite similar.

Sinterklaas or Nikolaus?

Saint Nicholas arriving by boat

Today, on the 5th of December, in the Netherlands people celebrate Sinterklaas and Pakjesavond, whereas in Germany, Switzerland, Austria, Hungary and some other countries, Nikolaus, Sankt Niklas or Samichlaus arrives on the 6th of December. He usually has only one helper: Knecht Ruprecht, Schmuntzli, Krampus, Bullerkas, Beelzebub, Hans Trapp, Housecker, Père Fouettard, Rupelz etc.., but in the Netherlands he has lots of Zwarte Pieten.

Well, if you live here in the Netherlands, you can  choose either to celebrate in the Dutch way, adapting to the social context or in the German, Swiss, Hungarian etc. way. We decided to adopt the Dutch celebration. As we never happened to be in Switzerland or Germany during these days of the year, our children never questioned the difference between these traditions. They accept it like the differences in classical tales (I will talk about this in an other article).

When I was a kid, I used to live in Italy and our italian neighbours didn’t celebrate San Nicola. As far as I know, only in the region South Tyrol, San Nicola is celebrated (San Nicola is also the patron saint of the city of Bari, but they don’t celebrate him like in Germany and South Tyrol). I remember that when I was a kid, my italian friends were very keen to learn about our german festivity. I was very proud of celebrating Nikolaus, but I also liked their festivity: the Befana.

La Befana or Heilige Drei Könige?

La befana

The celebration of La Befana seems very similar to Sinterklaas and Nikolaus, and takes place on the 6th of January.

La Befana is an old woman – often represented as a witch – who flies on her broom stick every year on the night between the 5th and 6th of January, the Epiphany day, to bring presents to children. She carries these presents in a big bag on her back. Usually she brings lots of sweets, and she will fill the stockings kids have left on the chimney. – Very similar to the Zwarte Pieten in the Netherlands, the sweets come down the chimney…

Well behaved children will find sweets and chocolates in their stocking on the day of the Epiphany. Those who didn’t behave will also get a few lumps of coal. Nowadays this would be sweets in the shape of coal.

Everyone loves La Befana in Italy, she is a lovely old woman with a long crooked nose, broken shoes and a patched dress.

In Germany, Switzerland etc. on the 6th of January they celebrate the Three Wise Men or Three Kings (Melchior, Caspar and Balthazar). In Spain, these three Wise Men will receive letters from children and bring them gifts on the night before Epiphany. In Spain, each one of the three Magi represents one different continent: Europe (Melchior), Asia (Caspar) and Africa (Balthasar). These Magi come from the Orient on their camels to visit the houses of all the children. Pretty much like Sinterklaas on his horse or Sankt Nikolaus… If the children in the Netherlands prepare a carrot and some hay for Amerigo, the horse of Sinterklaas, in Spain it is traditional to prepare food and drink for the camels (apparently this is the only time in the year they can eat).

In Spain and Portugal people eat a cake (Roscón de Reyes) to celebrate. It’s ring-shaped, most commonly bought, not baked, and it contains a small figurine of the baby Jesus (or another surprise depending on the region) and an actual dry broad bean.  The one who gets the figurine is crowned, but whoever gets the bean has to pay the value of the cake to the person who originally bought it.

In France, Belgium and Switzerland the cake (galette du roi, Dreikönigskuchen) contains a small figure of the baby Jesus or a small king, is shared within the family. Whoever gets the bean is crowned king for the remainder of the holiday and wears a cardboard crown purchased with the cake. The practice is known as tirer les Rois (Drawing the Kings).

In our family here in the Netherlands, we decided to celebrate Sinterklaas on the 5th of December along with all our Dutch friends, and Heilige Drei Könige like in Germany, Switzerland etc. with a little old woman arriving on her broom stick on the 6th of January…

Did you also choose to celebrate festivity in another way than you used to in your childhood? Or did you maybe choose to celebrate one festivity instead of another?

I would be very interested in knowing what made you take this decision and how you think and feel about it.