At this beginning of December, winter lived up to its name and changed the Twin Cities into a winter wonderland. In the continuous snowstorm, a tall man wearing a red robe and a red cap clears a way through the snow. Is it Santa Claus who somehow lost his reindeer on his long way from North Pole? No, it’s Saint Nicholas on his way to the Germanic American Institute (GAI).
“Since we have German ancestors, we practice German traditions in our family,” Evanjeline Fox says. She is a grandma at St. Paul’s German Immersion School and her seven-year-old granddaughter takes part in this year’s St. Nicholas celebration at the GAI.
The Germanic-American Institute is a non-profit cultural and educational organization that provides opportunities for all those who are interested in German language, culture, arts and history. Founded as the Volksfest Association of Minnesota in 1957, the Institute offers German language classes, operates two immersion preschools and sponsors the Twin Cities German Immersion charter school.
St. Nicholas was born during the third century in the village of Patara, a province of Asia Minor which is today Antalya, Turkey. According to the legend about him, Nicholas went to study in Alexandria and became later on Bishop of the city of Myra. On one sea voyage from Myra to Alexandria, he is said to have saved the life a sailor who fell from his ship during a storm. For this reason, he became patron saint of sailors and is often called upon by sailors who are in danger of drowning or being shipwrecked. He is also known for giving his fortune to the poor, and as a friend and protector of children. He died on December 6th in 343 A.D. In many European countries this day is celebrated as Saint Nicholas Day. For many legends about St. Nicholas, see the St. Nichoals Center.
The Saint Nicholas celebration starts with children’s performances of Advent music. Having sung a couple of traditional German Christmas carols and performed a Punch-and-Judy show, the tension and excitement of the children rises. They are waiting for Saint Nicholas to arrive. Stamping collectively with their feet, they try to show him the way to the 3rd floor of the Institute.
And there he is. Dressed in a red robe and wearing a miter, Saint Nicholas enters the room.
“Grüss Gott, ihre Kinder hier im Haus. Ich habe euch etwas mitgebracht, das euch sicher Freude macht,” he says, and then repeats in English: “Welcome you children in this house, I brought you something that will give you pleasure.” He explains that he came all the long way from Germany to Saint Paul.
He sits down in a chair and asks the children to come one after another round to his place in order to tell him if they were good during the year. It seems that this applies to all of them, since they all get a chocolate advent calendar as a present rather than being punished by a hit with his rod.
On December 6, many European countries celebrate St. Nicholas Day. In remembrance of the saint and his reputation as bringer of gifts, the children put a boot outside the front door on the night of December 5 to December 6. As long as the children were good during the year, St. Nicholas fills the boots with gifts (traditionally nuts and sweets). Otherwise they have a tree branch in their boots instead.
“The German Christmas celebration is more traditional and religious, less commercial,” says Mary Adelgren who is threading pearls on wire to make Christmas tree ornaments with her children.
For the children, the relationship between Santa Claus and Saint Nicholas is not clearly defined, although Saint Nicholas is oftentimes explained as a helper of Santa Claus.
“Compared to Saint Nicholas, Santa Claus is supposed to come down the chimney, but he doesn’t, I can tell you,” Connie Ventrelli laughs. 10-year-old Sonja considers: “Their outfit is different.” Saint Nicholas wears more a robe than a coat, they have different hats and Saint Nicholas doesn’t have any reindeer.
In the continuing snowstorm, a tall man with a red robe and a red hat clears a way through the snow. It is Saint Nicholas on his way back home to Europe.
Julia Degen is a student at Hamline University and an intern at the TC Daily Planet.